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Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers begin defense of NFL title against Dallas Cowboys

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TAMPA, Fla. Lofty, maybe even gargantuan, expectations don’t faze Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The reigning Super Bowl champions open the 2021 NFL season against the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night, confident they have everything it takes — at least on paper — to become the first team to win back-to-back titles since Brady led the 2003 and 2004 New England Patriots to consecutive crowns.

No one knows what it’s like to have a target on your back every week more than Brady, a seven-time Super Bowl winner who turned 44 during training camp — a few days after reminding teammates the first order of business is leaving last season behind.

The Bucs return all 22 starters from a top 10 offense and defense, however Brady and coach Bruce Arians stress talent alone doesn’t guarantee continued success.

“In one way, you’re not really defending it much, it’s kind of in the books. They can’t take away what we’ve done. It’s really just a whole other year and experience,” Brady said.

“We have a lot of continuity. We have a lot of things to build on and a lot more experience together,” Brady added. “That’s really all you can ask for as players is to be in the position that we’re in. I’d just like us to go out and take advantage of that.”

With Brady entering his second season working with a bevy of playmakers that includes receivers Mike EvansChris Godwin and Antonio Brown, tight ends Rob GronkowskiCameron Brate and O.J. Howard, the Bucs think they can be even more potent on offense.

The defense returns intact, too, with linebackers Devin WhiteLavonte DavidJason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett leading the way and a youthful group of cornerbacks and safeties looking to make names for themselves.

“As good as we played with the same group of guys, I’d love to see where we can get this year,” Brady said.

“Again, all of it is earned. There’s nothing given. It’s not about a bunch of hype or a bunch of buildup. We have to go do it,” Brady added. “I think that’s about a bunch of guys that are really mature and see ourselves as professional athletes. We want to go out there and put our best out there.”

The Cowboys are coming off a 6-10 finish in which they played most of the season without quarterback Dak Prescott.

Prescott returns Thursday night for the first time since suffering the severe ankle injury that ended his year last October. He didn’t play in the preseason, either, after straining his right shoulder early in training camp.

Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy is excited to get Prescott back on the field and spoke to his team about the opportunity to face a seemingly ageless Brady and the defending champs in the season opener for the entire NFL.

“We talked about … just how fortunate we are to be part of it on whatever level, most importantly the players,” McCarthy said.

“There’s definitely a youthfulness that has to exist to be successful, and I think (Brady’s) a good example if there ever was one that has played the game, or any sport, of the way you need to go about it,” McCarthy said. “He exudes with that every time he lines up. Very consistent. I think it’s a big part of his continued success.”

FACING THE BEST

Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott believes he can find the form that led to a pair of rushing titles in his first three seasons as he tries to rebound from a career-low 979 yards rushing.

If he wants a fast start, it’ll have to come against the league’s No. 1 rushing defense in 2020. And it’s expected to be without four-time All-Pro right guard Zack Martin, who tested positive for COVID-19 five days before the game. Third-year pro Connor McGovern is set to replace Martin, as he did last year when Martin battled a calf issue and missed six games.

QUINN’S DALLAS DEBUT

Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who missed the last two preseason games after a positive COVID-19 test, makes his debut with the Cowboys after getting fired midseason as coach in Atlanta last year. He replaced Mike Nolan, who lasted just one season after McCarthy hired him.

The Cowboys used eight of their 11 draft picks on defense, starting with Micah Parsons at No. 12 overall. Dallas hopes to have better luck with free agents, including two who played for Quinn with the Falcons. Damontae Kazee is expected to start at safety, while fellow former Atlanta safety Keanu Neal has moved to linebacker.

“My confidence is what I see every day,” McCarthy said. “I see a bunch that’s connecting. I think just the fact that if you take something as simple as the missed assignments vs. the mental errors breakdown, our defense has been ahead of our offense.”

RESPECT YOUR ELDERS

Dallas rookie defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa didn’t seem too concerned about giving Brady bulletin board material before the third-round pick out of UCLA had even played a regular-season game.

“He’s not very mobile,” said Odighizuwa, who is 21 years younger than Brady. “The dude is a little older, not too mobile.”

Asked the importance of interior pressure in what is likely to be a starting role in his NFL debut, Odighizuwa said, “Get him off his spot and his passer rating goes down by a lot.” What’s a lot? “I think they say it goes down by 50,” Odighizuwa said.

Given a chance to backtrack, Odighizuwa didn’t.

“I feel like he’s not a guy who’s too worried about what I’m saying,” he said. “He’s obviously going to be aware of it, but he’s been doing this for a while. People have been saying this, that and a third. He’s been doing his thing.”

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Atlanta Braves look to clinch National League pennant, first World Series appearance since 1999 with victory over Los Angeles Dodgers

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Photo: Major League Baseball

Los Angeles Dodgers (106-56, second in the NL West) vs. Atlanta Braves (88-73, first in the NL East)

Atlanta, Georgia; Saturday, 8:08 p.m. EDT

PITCHING PROBABLES: Dodgers: TBD Braves: Ian Anderson (1-0, 3.58 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 124 strikeouts this postseason)

NLCS: Atlanta leads the series 3-2

BOTTOM LINE: Atlanta will look to clinch a series win with a victory over Los Angeles in Game 6 of the NLCS.

The Braves were 42-38 on their home turf in 2021. Atlanta has a team batting average of .247 this postseason, Eddie Rosario has led them with an average of .471, including four extra base hits and eight RBI.

The Dodgers posted a record of 48-33 away from home in 2021. Los Angeles has a team slugging percentage of .404 this postseason, Chris Taylor leads them with a mark of .818, including seven extra base hits and 12 RBI.

The Dodgers won the last meeting 11-2. Evan Phillips earned his first victory this postseason and Chris Taylor went 4-for-5 with three home runs and six RBI for Los Angeles. Max Fried took his first loss of the postseason for Atlanta.

TOP PERFORMERS: Freddie Freeman leads the Braves with 179 hits and has 83 RBI.

Trea Turner leads the Dodgers with 65 extra base hits and is batting .328.

DURING THE PLAYOFFS: Braves: .247 batting average, 3.58 ERA, outscored opponents by five runs

Dodgers: .252 batting average, 3.06 ERA, outscored opponents by 11 runs

INJURIES: Braves: Josh Tomlin: (neck), Mike Soroka: (achilles), Grant Dayton: (shoulder), Tucker Davidson: (forearm), Marcell Ozuna: (hand), Ronald Acuna Jr.: (knee).

Dodgers: Jimmie Sherfy: (elbow), Jimmy Nelson: (elbow), Dustin May: (elbow), Clayton Kershaw: (forearm), Tommy Kahnle: (elbow), Cole Hamels: (arm), Caleb Ferguson: (elbow), Danny Duffy: (forearm), Garrett Cleavinger: (oblique), Scott Alexander: (shoulder), Edwin Rios: (shoulder), Sheldon Neuse: (undisclosed), Max Muncy: (elbow).

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Miami QB Tyler Van Dyke’s words help fuel NC State, Canes confident Wolfpack ‘can’t hang’ with them

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Photo: Canes All Access

University of Miami quarterback Tyler Van Dyke said this week without hesitation that he must get off to a faster start for the Hurricanes to win, his first opportunity coming at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at home against 18th-ranked NC State.

“It’s on me,’’ Van Dyke said. “I just have to get more comfortable in the beginning of the game. I’m capable of doing everything out there. I just gotta get the ball and let it rip.

Miami Hurricanes quarterback Tyler Van Dyke (9) sets up to pass during game against Alabama Crimson Tide in the fourth quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, September 4, 2021. AL DIAZ ADIAZ@MIAMIHERALD.COM

Don’t think. Don’t aim. Just let it rip. …It’s totally on me.”

Read more from the Miami Herald.

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García, Alvarez help Houston Astros oust Boston Red Sox, reach World Series

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Photo: Associated Press

HOUSTON, Tex. — Rookie Luis García showed the poise of an October ace, MVP Yordan Alvarez stayed hot at the plate and the Houston Astros earned yet another trip to the World Series, beating the Boston Red Sox 5-0 Friday night in Game 6 of the AL Championship Series.

The Astros advanced to the World Series for the third time in five seasons. They won the championship in 2017, a crown tainted by the team’s sign-stealing scandal, before losing to the Washington Nationals in seven games in 2019.

Manager Dusty Baker’s team will open the World Series on Tuesday night, either at Dodger Stadium or home against Atlanta. The Braves lead Los Angeles 3-2 in the NL Championship Series going into Game 6 Saturday night.

The Houston Astros celebrate their win against the Boston Red Sox in Game 6 of baseball’s American League Championship Series Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, in Houston. The Astros won 5-0, to win the ALCS series in game six. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

“There’s four more wins on the board out there,” the 72-year-old Baker said. “There’s four more wins you’ve got to get.”

García pitched no-hit ball into the sixth inning, leaving to a huge ovation with two outs after a triple by Kiké Hernández. It was an impressive bounce-back performance for the 24-year-old, who started Game 2 and gave up a grand slam in the first inning before leaving with no outs in the second because of discomfort in his right knee.

Alvarez continued his scorching streak, a year after watching at home after surgery to both knees as the Astros came one game shy of reaching the World Series. The slugging designated hitter had four hits, including a triple and two doubles. He led a Game 5 win with three hits and three RBIs.

The Houston Astros celebrate their win against the Boston Red Sox n Game 6 of baseball’s American League Championship Series Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, in Houston. The Astros won 5-0, to win the ALCS series in game six. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Álvarez hit an ALCS-record .522 (12 for 23) with one homer, three doubles, the triple and six RBIs in Houston’s six-game victory. He got nine hits in his last 13 at-bats.

Catcher Martín Maldonado made the defensive play of the game on a strikeout-throwout double play to end the seventh with Houston ahead 2-0.

It will be Baker’s second trip to the Fall Classic as a manager and first since leading the San Francisco Giants to the NL pennant in 2002. As a player, he made three trips with the Dodgers, winning it all in 1981.

Members of the Boston Red Sox react after their loss against the Houston Astros in Game 6 of baseball’s American League Championship Series Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, in Houston. The Astros won 5-0, to win the ALCS series in game six. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

“Hey, I’m going back to the World Series!” Baker told a cheering crowd at Minute Maid Park.

For Houston, it was a team victory featuring all facets of the game it used in taking the AL West title. The Astros won, too, without a hit from stars Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa — Alex Bregman got two hits and scored a run.

Boston’s best shot to score came in the seventh. The wild-card Red Sox had runners at first and third with one out in after a single by Alex Verdugo. But Kendall Graveman struck out pinch-hitter Travis Shaw and Maldonado made a perfect throw to Correa, who was covering second, to beat Verdugo there and end the inning.

Boston Red Sox first baseman Bobby Dalbec sits in the dugout after their loss against the Houston Astros in Game 6 of baseball’s American League Championship Series Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, in Houston. The Astros won 5-0, to win the ALCS series in game six. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Maldonado beat his chest with glee as Graveman and Correa both pumped their fists in celebration to roars from the crowd of 42,718.

Kyle Tucker broke it open with a three-run homer with two outs in the eighth. Television cameras flashed to Houston’s Hall of Fame duo of Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, who stood together and cheered as Tucker rounded the bases.

Ryan Pressly closed it out in the ninth. The Red Sox, who looked so formidable at the plate at the start of the season, were held to two hits in their final game.

Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker Jr. and shortstop Carlos Correa celebrate their win against the Boston Red Sox in Game 6 of baseball’s American League Championship Series Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, in Houston. The Astros won 5-0, to win the ALCS series in game six. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Bregman singled with two outs in the first before the double by Alvarez put the Astros up 1-0. Hernández was in position to make the catch, but it hit off his arm below his glove and dropped in for the hit.

Consecutive romps by Boston and its bashers made it appear that the Red Sox were in complete control of the series after Game 3, but as the long fly by Alvarez proved, they didn’t have a firm grip on things.

The Astros, buoyed by their young pitchers and rediscovered offense, won the next two games by a combined 18-3 to return home a win away from a World Series.

Houston Astros relief pitcher Ryan Pressly and teammates celebrate after a 5-0 win over the Boston Red Sox in Game 6 of the baseball AL Championship Series, Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, in Houston. The Astros advanced to the World Series (Kevin M. Cox/The Galveston County Daily News via AP)

Framber Valdez pitched the Astros to a Game 5 win at Fenway Park, then their 24-year-old rising stars, García and Alvarez, did the rest.

Houston had a chance to add to the lead in the fourth when Bregman singled and another double by Alvarez left him at third with no outs. But they came up empty after Nathan Eovaldi worked out of the jam.

Alvarez tripled with no outs in the sixth to chase Josh Taylor and Tanner Houck plunked Correa. Tucker then smacked a grounder right at first baseman Kyle Schwarber who tagged Correa for the unassisted double play as Alvarez slid safely into home to make it 2-0.

Houston Astros catcher Martin Maldonado and relief pitcher Ryan Pressly celebrate their win against the Boston Red Sox in Game 6 of baseball’s American League Championship Series Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, in Houston. The Astros won 5-0, to win the ALCS series in game six. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Eovaldi got the win in a solid Game 2 start but was charged with the loss in Game 4 after giving up the go-ahead runs after coming in with the game tied in the ninth.

On Friday, he permitted five hits and one run as the Red Sox lost a playoff game where he started for the first time after entering the game 5-0 in his starts.

García is the first pitcher to take a no-hitter into sixth of a potential playoff clincher since the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard got two outs in sixth against the Giants in 2016 NL wild-card game.

Boston Red Sox center fielder Enrique Hernandez waits in the outfield during the eighth inning in Game 6 of baseball’s American League Championship Series Houston Astros Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

García allowed Schwarber to reach on a wild pitch after a strikeout to open the game and walked Verdugo with one out in the second. He settled in after that, sitting down the next 13 with five strikeouts, before Hernández got Boston’s first hit on a triple with two outs in the sixth. García finished with seven strikeouts.

Phil Maton took over and retired Rafael Devers to end the inning.

SIGN OF THE TIMES

Boston manager Alex Cora has heard the speculation that the Astros are relaying signs from the bases and said the Red Sox protect themselves against that.

“It’s not about technology or other stuff,” Cora said. “There’s stuff that happens on the field that you have to be guarded. The same way that teams play defense against us, we play defense against other teams. Not only them we did it against the Yankees, we did it against the Rays. It’s the nature of the game. We’re prepared for that.”

Cora knows better than most about Houston’s sign-stealing history having been the team’s bench coach during the 2017 season when they were found to have violated rules by using a television camera to steal catchers’ signs.

UP NEXT

The Astros will make their fourth World Series appearance. They lost in their first try, swept by the Chicago White Sox in 2005.

Game 1 of the World Series is Tuesday night where the Astros will host if the Braves advance or Houston will travel to LA if the Dodgers win the NL pennant.

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