Jofra Archer flattened Steve Smith at Lord's but Australia's masterful talisman delivered what could be a knockout blow to England's hopes of regaining the Ashes after being dropped by the paceman at Old Trafford.

Smith was ruled out of England's astonishing series-levelling win at Headingley with concussion after he was struck by an Archer bouncer in the second Test.

It was Archer who was rattled on day two of the fourth Test in Manchester, though, after failing to grab a caught-and-bowled chance offered by Smith on 65.

Jack Leach also let the batsman off the hook after he had reached an 11th Ashes century, the spinner paying the price for overstepping when he looped up a delivery which Smith edged to Ben Stokes at slip.

Smith had 118 to his name at that point but he was nowhere near finished yet, striding back to make a magnificent 211 before the tourists declared on 497-8. They reduced England to 23-1 by stumps.

If ever proof was needed that fortune favours the brave, it was provided by Smith less than three weeks after being hit on the neck by a searing short ball.

The former captain has had boos ringing in his ears since arriving in England ahead of the Cricket World Cup for his part in the Newlands ball-tampering scandal, which landed him a one-year ban and cost him the captaincy.

Yet a packed Old Trafford crowd rose in appreciation for what they had witnessed when he brought up a third double hundred against England.

Smith saluted all corners of the ground when given another standing ovation following his dismissal to Joe Root, having struck two sixes and 24 fours in the 319 balls he faced.

The irrepressible Smith started the second day looking even more fidgety than his usual hectic self at the crease but was soon toying with England after riding his luck.

He mixed unconventional strokes with glorious drives on both sides of the wicket in another incredible display of skill and application, with Tim Paine also punishing England for two drops by making 58 in a sixth-wicket stand of 145.

Only the great Don Bradman has more Ashes hundreds than Smith, while Jack Hobbs (12) is the solitary Englishman to better the ex-skipper's tally in Tests between the two old rivals.

The domineering right-hander averages 147.25 in his four visits to the crease in his first Test series since serving his suspension.

Smith showed you cannot keep a good man down and the bad news for England is there could be more runs to come, with Australia in a great position to retain the urn.

Few would disagree that men's tennis is due a makeover and perhaps we are closer than ever to glimpsing its new face.

The same names are reeled off at every grand slam when talk turns to the 'next generation', and Kei Nishikori ran us through them on the first day of this US Open.

The Japanese put himself forward as a possible contender, then added: "You see [Dominic] Thiem playing finals, and I think a couple of guys are getting closer.

"Of course, Sascha [Alexander Zverev] is a great player and a couple of young guys: Felix [Auger-Aliassime], [Denis] Shapovalov, [Nick] Kyrgios, those guys who are coming up, too. Oh, yes, and [Daniil] Medvedev."

Four times a year, the debate turns to which '#NextGen' star – Nishikori is now 29 – might be able to end the slam dominance of the 'Big Three'.

Andy Murray had made it a 'Big Four' and Stan Wawrinka won three majors in three years, but the latter's Flushing Meadows triumph in 2016 was the last time one of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, three of the greatest players in history, did not win a grand slam.

There is certainly no shame in coming up short when those three represent the competition.

Federer has made his home in Melbourne and at Wimbledon, Nadal is close to untouchable on clay, and Djokovic, on his day and when fit, has the full package.

Opportunities for the rest are scarce. Thiem has been able to beat Nadal on the red dirt but not at Roland Garros, losing consecutive finals. The US Open has seen a varied cast of recent finalists, yet Djokovic has played in three of the past four deciders and won two of them.

This is the golden era of men's tennis, and yet...

Whisper it quietly, but might there be an argument that it has become a little dull seeing the same three names top the honours boards four times a year?

Can we have too much of a good thing? Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are certainly a good thing. They have done wonders for tennis with their efforts both individually and collectively.

But sport is arguably at its best when it is unpredictable, when fans come along for the ride not knowing which way it will twist or turn.

Look at the NFL or the NBA, where regular-season records count for nothing when the top seeds – like the New Orleans Saints or the Milwaukee Bucks – fall short in the playoffs. Look at the Champions League, where Manchester City, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain, try as they might, cannot turn domestic dominance into European success. Look a little closer to home at the WTA Tour.

For while men's tennis is a closed shop, the women's equivalent is anything but. Since Serena Williams completed her second 'Serena Slam' in 2015, there have been 10 different champions across 16 major tournaments.

Serena can dismantle any opponent when on top form and has at times done so this year, but the competition is healthy, the results are often unexpected.

So this year's men's US Open has been similarly refreshing.

We can all remember classic Djokovic-Federer clashes – as recently as the Wimbledon final – but Grigor Dimitrov downed the great Swiss in a New York epic, while Matteo Berrettini described his own quarter-final against Gael Monfils as "one of the best matches I've ever seen".

Seeing new faces compete at the business end of the tournament has been uplifting, with unusually early exits for Federer and Djokovic presenting opportunities for others to forge legacies.

And now, one could argue, we must have a new winner. Only Nadal, with a patchy recent hard-court record, remains of the superhuman trio. He is the favourite but surely he is beatable.

Because how quickly would a thrilling fortnight be forgotten if, come the start of next year, Nadal and Djokovic each held two slam titles? Conversely, a triumphant Medvedev, Dimitrov or Berrettini would renew hope within the locker room.

The 'Big Three' might not have long left at the top – particularly in 38-year-old Federer's case – but the 'next generation' need not wait that long to get over the hump. This looks like a fine opportunity.

US Open spectators had their appetite for world class tennis satiated once again on Wednesday, as Matteo Berrettini and Gael Monfils delivered a thriller at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Berrettini needed nearly four hours to see off Monfils in five sets to reach his first grand slam semi-final.

The secret to his success at Flushing Meadows may be in the meals he is eating at his favourite New York restaurant, which was soon on his mind after his marathon victory.

Omnisport's man on the ground, Nicholas McGee, provides the details in our daily diary from New York.


GIOVANNI A GOOD LUCK CHARM FOR BERRETTINI

Berrettini had a new face in his box during his victory over Monfils, Giovanni Bartocci, the owner of Via Della Pace, an Italian restaurant in Manhattan's East Village that the 23-year-old has frequented during his time in New York.

Bartocci will likely be invited back after witnessing Berrettini's performance in defeating his French opponent, with the Italian set to face Rafael Nadal in the last four.

Asked in his media conference about his friendship with Bartocci, Berrettini replied: "The owner, yeah, Giovanni. Actually, he's from Rome, my city. So, you know, is not tough to get friend with a guy from the same city.

"I knew him last year. He's such a nice guy. He's always cheering for Italians. I mean, I'm the only one left, so now he's cheering for me."

On his favourite dish at the restaurant. he added: "Pasta for sure. But I like pasta in bianco. I don't know if you know it. It's like just oil and parmesan. Simple but really good."


A SUSHI CELEBRATION FOR MURRAY

Shifting to culinary delights from a different region, sushi was on the menu for Jamie Murray after his and Neal Skupski's win over Jack Sock and Jackson Withrow in the men's doubles.

The Scot snacked on the Japanese fare as he spoke to reporters following that three-set triumph.

It clearly provided the boost he needed as Murray went on to also claim victory in the mixed doubles alongside Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the pair progressing to the final by defeating Rajeev Ram and Samantha Stosur.


SCHWARTZMAN WINS SPORTSMANSHIP AWARD

Diego Schwartzman received no reward for an admirable performance against Nadal, as he was defeated in three sets by the highest remaining seed and now tournament favourite.

He can take some solace, however, in that his conduct on and off the court has been recognised.

Before speaking to reporters following his elimination, Schwartzman was presented with the US Open sportsmanship award for 2019.

A well-deserved honour for a player who should have won plenty of new fans with his displays at Flushing Meadows.

In the NFL's 100th season, one of two founding franchises will be hoping to hold off the league's most successful team in the NFC North.

The Chicago Bears, who began life as the Decatur Staleys, will kick off the century campaign on Thursday at home against a Green Bay Packers team turning over a new leaf after rookie head coach Matt LaFleur was hired to revive the 13-time champions following a 6-9-1 campaign in 2018.

Chicago's decision to turn to a first-time offensive-minded head coach paid off last year as Matt Nagy led the team to their first division title since 2010 and Coach of the Year honours for him.

The Packers, meanwhile, have the best quarterback in the division — and arguably the NFL — executing LeFleur's plays and a defense with top-10 potential on the other side, so the expectations are high in Green Bay.

"I think there's an incredible amount of talent here," LaFleur said at his introductory news conference back in January. "Obviously when you have a quarterback of the calibre of Aaron Rodgers, we're going to have high expectations. We are going to be process-driven in the pursuit of bringing a Lombardi Trophy back to Green Bay."

 

Player to watch

Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings running back

Do not tell those with a keen interest in who wins Thursday at Soldier Field, but there is another NFC North team with aspirations of a deep playoff run. The Vikings had the number one-ranked defense when they made the NFC championship game two seasons ago, and quarterback Kirk Cousins was supposed to be the final piece of the jigsaw when he arrived in 2018.

Instead, Minnesota went 8-7-1 last year and missed the playoffs, though there is reason for optimism anew in 2019, particularly if Cook can finally stay healthy. A second-round pick in 2017, he has missed 17 of 32 games due to knee and hamstring injuries but has flashed potential in averaging 4.7 yards per carry. He also ripped off an 85-yard touchdown run this preseason to suggest he could finally breakout.

Crucially, the Vikings' troublesome offensive line should be better after they drafted center Garrett Bradbury in the first round and acquired guard Josh Kline in free agency. Even more important, Super Bowl-winning coach Gary Kubiak is on board as an offensive adviser and Cook should thrive in his zone-blocking scheme.

"Most great players that I've been around in this business are workers and when you come out here every day, you see why he's a great player, really works hard," Kubiak told reporters of Cook in August.

Impact rookie

David Montgomery, Chicago Bears running back

Chicago had no first- or second-round picks in the 2019 draft, but they were not prepared to stand pat and moved up in the third round to land Iowa State back Montgomery.

"We didn't have a first-round pick, we didn't have a second-round pick … and when he was sitting there, to us, he was a first-round talent," Nagy recently told Yahoo Sports.

Montgomery led college football in broken tackles last season and is expected to slot in as the Bears' primary back after Jordan Howard's departure, with the electric Tarik Cohen and bruising Mike Davis also in the mix.

The consensus in Chicago is that Montgomery is a better fit for Nagy's offense than Howard due to his versatility and ability to contribute in the passing game. At a position where rookies can often shine, Montgomery could really wow right away in the Windy City.

Coach on the hot seat

Matt Patricia, Detroit Lions

A fine coordinator who impressed with the New England Patriots failing to deliver as a head coach? We have been here before. The evidence so far is that Patricia will not buck the trend after a 6-10 debut season.

Patricia has the comfort of being the handpicked selection of general manager Bob Quinn — himself a former Patriots staffer — but seven losses in their final 10 games of 2018 could not have gone unnoticed by the Lions hierarchy.

The Lions do look strong on both sides of the trenches, but if quarterback Matthew Stafford, who threw for just 3,777 yards in 2018, disappoints again, Detroit may consider ripping it up and starting over (again) in 2020.

A first winless preseason since 1989 has only given Patricia's naysayers more fuel. Though Lions fans will remember the team went 4-0 in the 2008 preseason, only to go 0-16 in the regular season.

Key matchup

Chicago Bears v Green Bay Packers, December 15

Thursday's opening clash between these two in Chicago could set the tone, but the Packers beat the Bears at Lambeau in week one last year only for Nagy's team to win the division.

We will have a better idea of these two teams by Week 15, when they will meet for the 200th time.

That is Green Bay's final home game of the season and the Packers will want to record a fourth successive victory over the Bears at Lambeau given they finish the season with tricky road games against the Vikings and Lions.

Interestingly, the Bears have a 10-day break between hosting the Dallas Cowboys and visiting the Packers. With contests against the Chiefs and Vikings to round out the season, Week 15 could be crucial to their postseason aspirations too.

Predicted finish

Number one ranked defenses typically tend to fall back to the pack the next year — the Vikings went from the top in 2017 to ninth in 2018, for example — and as well as losing key personnel in the secondary like Adrian Amos (now a Packer) and Bryce Callahan — their defensive coordinator Vic Fangio departed to become Denver Broncos head coach.

Even if quarterback Mitchell Trubisky takes a significant step forward in his third season, the Bears may struggle to duplicate their 2018 record, especially with the Packers primed for a comeback. Rodgers will be determined to prove it was ex-head coach Mike McCarthy and not him who was holding the Packers back, while an exciting young defense should improve if Jaire Alexander and Kenny Clark move themselves into the elite category.

The jury is still out on Cousins with the Vikings, though it would be no surprise to see them get a wild card in a stacked division. The Lions may struggle to keep up if only because of how strong the other three are.

1. Packers

2. Bears

3. Vikings

4. Lions

The 2018 season gave us a number of record-breaking performances, and there is even more to come in 2019.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees reached the biggest milestone of the season when he surpassed Peyton Manning's mark of 71,940 yards as he became the NFL's all-time leading passer.

Brees also set records for career completions (6,586) and single-season completion percentage (74.4).

But it was young star Patrick Mahomes who ran away with MVP honours after the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback became only the second NFL player in history to pass for more than 50 touchdowns and 5,000 yards in a season.

Other players who had an impressive statistical season included Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who set a rookie record for touchdown passes (27), and Indianapolis Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri – who moved past Morten Andersen (2,544 career points) to become the NFL's all-time scoring leader.

But there is more to come for the NFL's historic 100th season in 2019.

 

NFL milestones that could be reached this season

— Tom Brady (70,514) needs 1,325 passing yards to eclipse Brett Favre for the third most all-time. 

— Philip Rivers (374) requires 26 passing touchdowns to reach 400 in his career.

— Cam Newton (4,808) needs 121 rushing yards to pass Randall Cunningham for the second-most rushing yards ever by a quarterback. Michael Vick holds the record at 6,109.

— Russell Wilson (196) requires four passing touchdowns to reach 200 in his career.

— Adrian Peterson (106) needs one rushing touchdown to pass Jim Brown for the fifth most in NFL history. He (13,318) requires 345 rushing yards to surpass Jerome Bettis for the seventh-most all-time.

— J.J. Watt (92) requires eight sacks to reach 100 in his NFL career.

— Ben Roethlisberger (363) needs 37 passing touchdowns for 400 in his career.

— Larry Fitzgerald (116) requires one touchdown catch to leapfrog Antonio Gates for the sixth-most all-time. He needs 23 receptions to pass Tony Gonzalez for the second-most all-time.

— Antonio Brown's next touchdown catch will be his 75th in his career.

— Cordarrelle Patterson (six) needs two kick-off returns for touchdown to tie the NFL record.

— Von Miller (98) requires two sacks to reach 100 in his NFL career.

There's no telling what will happen in the NFC East.

If past is prelude, then chaos will likely reign in the division again this year, as there are quite a few interesting situations that need to be tracked.

Eli Manning and Daniel Jones are battling for the support of New Yorks Giants fans, the Philadelphia Eagles' success is based on whether Carson Wentz can hold up for an entire season, and Ezekiel Elliott's holdout in hopes of becoming one of the NFL's highest-paid running backs overshadowed the Dallas Cowboys.

Meanwhile, the Washington Redskins are looking to rebound from a year in which they lost not one but two signal-callers to season-ending leg injuries - and they have put their faith in Case Keenum.

No team has won the division in consecutive years since the Eagles won three straight NFC East titles in 2002, 2003 and 2004, so anything could happen.
 

Player to watch

Carson Wentz, Eagles quarterback

Wentz undoubtedly has MVP-calibre talent, but he needs to stay healthy in order for Philadelphia to have any shot this year. The 26-year-old has thrown for 10,152 yards and 70 touchdowns in three NFL seasons - actually two and a half seasons, considering he has played in only 40 games because of injuries.

Speaking of injuries: Wentz hasn't managed to play in a single playoff game, as now-Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Nick Foles took over for the Eagles in the postseason in each of the last two years.

Wentz has weapons like Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson and Zach Ertz at his disposal, so Philadelphia appear to be built for success on paper. If Wentz can start (and finish) at least 14 games and is in relatively good shape at the end of the regular season, he could very well live up the expectations set by the four-year, $128million extension he signed this offseason and be the best quarterback in the NFC East in 2019.

"I feel like I'm just mentally in a much different place, and physically I feel good too," Wentz said, via Philly.com. "A little more relaxed, you could probably say."

He's a natural when it comes extending plays to make something out of nothing, but his knack for this also increases his risk of injury. Wentz, 26, will need to choose his battles and know when to throw the ball away or take a sack in 2019. Moderation will be key in what could be his biggest season yet.
 

Impact rookie

Derrius Guice, Redskins running back

Derrius Guice technically isn't a rookie, as he was drafted by Washington as a second-rounder in the 2018 NFL Draft. But he did miss all of what would have been his rookie campaign after tearing his ACL in the preseason. Expect big things from this explosive running back in 2019.

Adrian Peterson eclipsed 1000 rushing yards last season, but Washington's Jay Gruden has already made it clear he expects Guice to handle the bulk of the carries.

"It's not so much about Samaje as it is about Derrius Guice, how much faith we have in him to carry the ball," Gruden said, via the Washington Post. "We drafted him for a reason. We feel like he can be a first-, second- and even third-down back if needed. The offense, carries-wise, will probably go through him, pretty much."

The 22-year-old ran for more than 1,000 yards in two of his three seasons at LSU and even led the SEC in rushing yards as a sophomore. 

Washington's lack of depth at receiver and questionable quarterback situation will likely force them to pound the ground with their top option early and often.
 

Coach on the hot seat

Jason Garrett, Cowboys

Jason Garrett is entering his ninth full season as Dallas' head coach since going 5-3 as their interim in 2010, and he simply has to do more with the talent he has. Garrett has arguably the best running back in the NFL in Ezekiel Elliott, a talented dual-threat quarterback in Dak Prescott and one of the games more dynamic receivers in Amari Cooper. The Cowboys also have a top-flight defensive line.

But Dallas have won only two playoff games under Garrett, despite winning the NFC East three times during his reign. 

Garrett's five-year, $30million contract he signed in 2014 is nearing its end, and this might be his make-or-break season.

Garrett downplays any pressure - for a third consecutive season.

"Our biggest focus is on what we need to do to be our best as players and coaches and the rest of that stuff will take care of itself," he said, via the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
 

Key matchup

Cowboys at Eagles, Dec 22

It's easy to see that Dallas and Philadelphia are the two teams in the NFC East with the most talent. There's no quarterback controversy and each team's top skill players have defined roles and most have proved they can perform at a high level.

The Cowboys and Eagles will likely be the two teams fighting for a division title as the regular season comes to a close, so this Week 16 matchup could seriously affect the playoff picture.

It wouldn't be that surprising if this game outright determined which side takes the cake.
 

Predicted finish

We're just going to stick with recent trends in predicting how the season shakes out. Since no team has repeated as division champ in the NFC East in 15 years, the Eagles will dethrone the Cowboys. But Dallas shouldn't be too far behind.

It's a toss-up between the Giants and Redskins when it comes to third and fourth place.

1. Eagles

2. Cowboys

3. Giants

4. Redskins

There's a legitimate case to be made for the NFC West being the most exciting division in the NFL.

After their Super Bowl letdown, the Los Angeles Rams enter 2019 knowing they will likely face an extremely difficult fight to maintain supremacy in the division.

With the health of Todd Gurley's knee a huge question mark hanging over their season, the Rams face stiff competition from a Seattle Seahawks team that made the playoffs last season and potentially a San Francisco 49ers team set up to contend if their quarterback can stay healthy and return to his 2017 form.

Lurking as a dangerous worst-to-first contender is a Arizona Cardinals team that promises to be one of the most fascinating in the league in 2019.

After he guided them to within a win of the Lombardi Trophy, Rams quarterback Jared Goff signed a four-year extension.

"He's just getting better and better," coach Sean McVay says of Goff.

For the Rams retain the division title, they'll need that to continue to be the case.
 

Player to Watch

Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers quarterback

Last year, the 49ers were expected to make the leap to playoff contention because of Garoppolo. That all went south when Garoppolo tore his ACL in Week 3, and now he is under considerable pressure to prove he is the right man to lead the offense and deliver much-needed results for coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch in year three of their regime.

Garoppolo rebounded from a dreadful preseason performance against the Denver Broncos with a solid outing against the Kansas City Chiefs, though the concerns his performance in the first game raised will not be extinguished until he starts winning.

Niners tight end George Kittle, though, has full belief in Garoppolo. Kittle told StatsPerform: "I know for a fact that Jimmy Garoppolo is really, really good at football and I can't wait until everyone can see what he can do in a full season. He's a special player, so I'm just looking forward to being back on the field with him.

"When he came in, he played in five games and won all five. That year we were kind of banged up too, we were missing some pieces and he still led us to five wins, so I'm just looking forward to what he can do with a fully healthy roster and a whole year with coach Shanahan under his belt. I'm really looking forward to it."
 

Impact Rookie

Kyler Murray, Cardinals quarterback

Sometimes the best answer is the obvious one. That is certainly the case with Kyler Murray, the clear frontrunner to have the biggest impact of any rookie not just in the division, but in the whole NFL, too. As the Cardinals adjust to Kliff Kingsbury's Air Raid offense, they will go as far as the dual-threat (potential) superstar can take them.

There has been so much attention on what Murray can do with his legs, but what has stood out most to his Arizona team-mates is his unerring accuracy.

"Obviously, he's a dynamic quarterback. He can change just the whole style of a team's offense when he scrambles," running back Chase Edmonds said, via ESPN. "But I think it overshadows just how accurate he truly is and just how calm he's able to stay under pressure when you look at his footwork when guys are approaching him or how he's so quickly able to just settle back and get an accurate throw going on."

If the Cardinals are to bounce back from a dismal 3-13 season and surprise those who expect another last-place finish, Murray will need to showcase that accuracy right off the bat.
 

Coach on the hot seat

Kliff Kingsbury, Cardinals

There is a strong argument for 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan being on the hot seat after two losing seasons, but injuries likely bought him time and, given Shanahan's play-calling wisdom, general manager John Lynch would likely go before him.

Questions about Pete Carroll's longevity may come if the Seahawks struggle, but the most likely scenario is that the Cardinals' gamble on Kingsbury and his offense backfires and Arizona are forced to cut bait.

Kingsbury, for his part, is adamant his attack will not look the same as it did during his time with Texas Tech, telling The Ringer: "We won't throw it 88 times [a game] the way we did with [now-Chiefs QB] Mahomes."

However, his hiring is still one with potential for disaster, and he has a chance to be one and done should the Cardinals be as bad as they were last season - 3-13 in, ahem, Steve Wilks' one-and-done season.
 

Key Matchup

Seahawks at 49ers, Nov 11

The Niners ended a long winless run against the Seahawks in 2018 with a meaningless late-season overtime victory. This primetime clash should have a lot more riding on it, though, and if San Francisco are victorious again this time around, it will be a clear signal the Seahawks' time as a force in the West is coming to a close.
 

Predicted finish

It's an offense-dominated league in which play-callers are perhaps even more important than those executing the instructions. In that area, the Rams and 49ers have the edge over the Seahawks. A lot is dependent on Garoppolo, but the two California teams looked best placed to fight for the division, with the Seahawks looking ill-equipped to keep up with them should both the Rams and Niners offenses fire on all cylinders.

1. Rams

2. 49ers

3. Seahawks

4. Cardinals

The 2019 NFL season is a celebration of the century - and such an occasion requires lots of attention.

The league returns on Thursday as the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers renew the NFL's oldest rivalry, opening its 100th season with an NFC North showdown.

But it's just the beginning of a season with many intriguing games and narratives that are sure to follow as the New England Patriots chase a record-breaking seventh Super Bowl win, the Indianapolis Colts deal with the aftermath of Andrew Luck's retirement and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz continues a(nother) comeback campaign.

We take a look at the key storylines.

 

Will Antonio Brown's season be as turbulent as his offseason?

It seems hard to top, but the 31-year-old did lead the league in receiving touchdowns last season and has plenty of other eye-popping stats on his resume. Still, the Pittsburgh Steelers' disastrous 2018 campaign is proof that distractions can be divisive, and Brown has dealt with a number of diversions this offseason, from his frostbitten feet to his helmet holdout. Will business boom or bust in Oakland? Keep your popcorn full.

How will quarterbacks on the mend fare?

Cam Newton (shoulder) and Jimmy Garoppolo (knee), Andy Dalton (thumb) and Marcus Mariota (foot, rib, shoulder, neck, back, nerves). Need we go on? There are a number of signal-callers seeking retribution after their 2018 campaigns were interrupted or cut short due to injury. Can these prominent passers prove they still have it or will it be next man up on the depth chart?

Are the Browns contenders?

It's a legitimate question after the overhaul offseason that saw the addition of new targets for second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield in Odell Beckham Jr and Kareem Hunt - who will begin the season suspended - but like first-year coach Freddie Kitchens, the team is still young. The Cleveland Browns improved to 7-8-1 after their infamous 0-16 season in 2017, and the team's offseason acquisitions give reason to believe the long-suffering fanbase is finally in for a treat this year. The AFC North is ruthless, but this could be the year Cleveland return to the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

How long will Eli Manning last as the Giants' starter?

There's a reason the New York Giants drafted Daniel Jones out of Duke with the sixth overall pick in April, but how quickly will that backup plan will be put into action? While the rookie impressed in preseason, it's said the starting job will remain Eli Manning's as long as the team is in contention. But it's hard to forget the veteran's irregularity last season. Manning completed 66 per cent of his passes for 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions as the Giants missed the playoffs for a second straight year. Do they have the patience for another year?

Can Le'Veon Bell stay healthy after nearly 600 days away from the game?

The star rusher has remained relatively quiet since leaving the Steelers for the New York Jets, but could it just be the calm before the storm? Le'Veon Bell does have 5,336 rushing yards, 2,660 receiving yards and 42 touchdowns through his first five NFL seasons, but practice isn't the same as in-game action - and it's been a while since he's seen any. Still, the Jets running back appears ready to let his performance this season do the talking.

How will Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury adjust with the Cardinals?

The rookie quarterback and first-year NFL coach face the tall task of turning around a team that finished with their worst record in nearly two decades as the Arizona Cardinals went 3-13 in 2018. Arizona will still need to be cautious with Kyler Murray, as the dual-sport star continues to get comfortable following his preseason inconsistencies, but Kliff Kingsbury is expected to be more aggressive. The duo should be able to shake their nerves fairly quickly.

Will the Raiders bid farewell to Oakland with a winning season?

The Raiders have had only one winning season since 2002, but they have plenty to be optimistic about after selecting four rookies in the top 40 picks of this year's Draft in addition to acquiring Brown, Richie Incognito and Vontaze Burfict. They could even advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2002, something that would certainly be a sweet send-off to Sin City ahead of the team's 2020 relocation.

Can the Steelers still thrive without the 'Killer Bs'?

Bell and Brown left Pittsburgh in dramatic fashion this offseason, leaving only Ben Roethlisberger after a turbulent 2018 season in which the Steelers finished 9-6-1 and outside the playoffs for the first time since 2013 amid myriad distractions. Now it's time for third-year stars James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster to shine in their stead - if they can stay healthy. As for the team's Ryan Shazier-sized void on defense, there are high hopes first-round pick Devin Bush can bring back Blitzburgh.

How will the new pass interference rule play out?

Just don't ask a New Orleans Saints fan, because it will always be too little too late for them. Now that coaches can challenge pass interference calls and non-calls as part of the replay review system, such catastrophes like the infamous no-call in last season's NFC championship game can be avoided. But the new rule could also open a can of worms and change the strategies for using challenges in general. To see how it plays out, you'll just have to stay tuned.

Will the NFL negotiate a new CBA?

The league has been hinting that a new collective bargaining agreement could be finalized as early as September, but an ominous "work stoppage ready" plan distributed in July, urging players to be prepared for "loss of income, loss of health insurance, increased training costs and loss of camaraderie and structure", suggested otherwise. The current CBA is set to expire after the 2020 season, so the clock is ticking.

"I don't have a crystal ball, do you?"

Roger Federer was terse when asked if he felt he would have more opportunities to win grand slams like the one he just let slip at the US Open, with Novak Djokovic out of the draw and the Swiss having a clear path to a potential final with Rafael Nadal.

He is right, of course. He does not have a crystal ball and neither does anyone else. However, he certainly could have used one ahead of Tuesday's match with Grigor Dimitrov, as even the most confident of fortune tellers could not have envisaged what the Bulgarian produced at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Dimitrov stands as one of a growing number of once highly regarded ATP Tour players who have been unable to live up to their potential. So lofty was the opinion of Dimitrov's considerable talents, that he was once nicknamed 'Baby Fed'.

There have been considerable highs in Dimitrov's frenetic career that justified his reputation. His 2014 Wimbledon quarter-final win over then-defending champion Andy Murray was a supremely accomplished performance against an opponent playing with the vociferous backing of the home crowd.

His 2017 run to the Australian Open semi-finals was another strong hint at a breakthrough but it again appeared to be a false dawn, and there was nothing going into the last eight at Flushing Meadows to suggest he would be able to topple Federer.

Federer had won their previous seven meetings and had looked imperious in swatting Daniel Evans and David Goffin in the third and fourth rounds, while Dimitrov was playing in his first Tour-level quarter-final since January.

Even with Dimitrov having played extremely well to win the second set, there were few inside Ashe who expected it to be little more than a blip in the five-time champion's progression to the last four, with that assessment seemingly set to be vindicated when he took the third.

Yet, as Federer later said, this was "Grigor's moment", and he made sure of that in a tremendous fourth-set performance encompassing everything that had once led to him being considered the heir to Federer's throne.

There was power, variety, excellent movement and there were passing shots, oh so many passing shots, continually thundered beyond an ailing Federer off the forehand and backhand sides.

Federer insisted he was not surprised by Dimitrov's performance.

"It's the Grigor I expected. He has returned against me in the past also a little bit further back. He has been in, chipped, come over. He has the arsenal to do all sorts of things. He used it all tonight to great effect," said the 38-year-old.

That opinion is probably only shared by Dimitrov, as the sense of shock inside the world's biggest tennis stadium was palpable as the 28-year-old wore Federer down to the extent that he had to take a medical time-out for a back injury at the end of the fourth set.

Dimitrov displayed incredible character and endurance in doing so. Service games on both sides played out as mini-dramas within a fascinating thrill ride, with the Bulgarian's desire to make Federer play as many balls as possible paying dividends in the seventh game of the fourth. 

Federer held after a game that featured eight deuces and in which he had to save seven break points. Dimitrov may have been unable to get the double break, but he knew the damage had been done.

He said: "I think even when I lost that game, I was actually smiling going through the changeover because I was [thinking], 'That game must have hurt him a lot.' For me, it actually filled me up.

"After that fourth set, I felt also he kind of needed a little bit of a break, as well. I kept on pushing through. I think in the first game in the fifth, I put so many returns back, pretty much all the returns, so he had to go. He wanted to keep the points really short. I used every single opportunity I had."

That was the difference between the Dimitrov of old and the one that stunned a hugely pro-Federer crowd, perceptiveness and patience. He knew his opponent was struggling, he knew he did not have to swing for the fences. He did not have to go for the kill, because he knew the kill would come to him.

It came in rapid fashion in the fifth set as Dimitrov secured a 3-6 6-4 3-6 6-4 6-2 triumph that will go down as one of the biggest upsets in recent memory. It was a result virtually nobody expected from the world number 78 but, regardless of what he does from here in New York, Dimitrov's shock defeat of Federer will make sure nobody doubts his ability to deliver on the grand slam stage again.

Tom Watson celebrates his 70th birthday on Wednesday, a notable number for a golfer who appeared to defy time a decade ago at Turnberry.

The American won eight majors in a hugely successful career, but perhaps it is the one that got away that remains so fresh in many memories.

At The Open in 2009, Watson rolled back the years to produce a performance that delighted those watching on, both those lucky to be there at the course but also around the world on television.

To mark his notable milestone, we look back at a tournament that will never be forgotten...

Fairy tales have enthralled, entertained and educated us for centuries.

Whether it be a lesson in morality, a magical escape or a triumph for good over evil, fairy tales have the exceptional ability to let us escape from reality.

It is a formula that succeeds time and time again. The problem is when it comes to sport, however, the lines become blurred and there is no one formula to follow.

Sport has no room for sentimentality, no time for history, no interest in assuaging our desires for the feel-good narrative. There is not always a lesson to be taught, nor always a battle between good and bad.

Just ask Tom Watson and Stewart Cink, who were part of a real-life fable that will live forever in golfing folklore.

Once upon a time, Watson was considered among the best players on the planet. At the peak of his powers in the 1970s and early 80s there was a magic and aura about the American great that resulted in eight major championships.

But, as with any great sports star, time eventually caught up with the great champion, which is what made the story of the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry so special.

By this point of his career, Watson was 59. His last major success was back in 1983, when he clinched a fifth Open at Royal Birkdale.

And yet, despite pre-tournament odds of 1500-1 and hip replacement surgery just nine months prior, Watson was on the brink of the most remarkable of victories, one that would have made him the oldest major winner of all time.

Even when Watson rolled back the years with an opening-round 65 that left him one off the lead, it was hard to imagine what we were witnessing was anything other than a nostalgic throwback to a bygone era.

Through 36 holes, though, there was an ever-increasing feeling of 'what if?' A gritty level-par round in tricky Ayrshire conditions left Watson tied for the lead. He couldn't... could he?

By the end of Saturday - which yielded a one-over 71, enough to take the outright lead - the most far-fetched dream was becoming a scarcely believable reality.

A couple of bogeys early on the Sunday hinted that the rigours of major golf on a 59-year-old's body had finally caught up. But even as Ross Fisher and then Mathew Goggin moved ahead, Watson refused to slip quietly into the background.

As the day progressed, there was drama that even Martin Scorsese in his full, creative flow could not have scripted.

While Lee Westwood played himself in and out of contention, Cink climbed the leaderboard and rolled in a 15-footer at the last to join Watson on two under and crank up the pressure. However, Watson replied to the situation with a gain of his own at 17, meaning he was just four strokes away from creating history.

Yet the fairy-tale nature of the weekend was replaced by the cruel reality of professional sport. A crisp eight iron sailed over the green, while his third back onto the putting surface left a tricky 10-footer for victory. The putt, as would be the case for Watson's efforts over the weekend, came up just short.

There was still the lottery of a play-off, yet the grind of the previous four days finally took their toll as Cink made a major breakthrough in a one-sided extra four holes.

So near, yet so far. For Watson, there was little solace to take from a herculean effort that had warmed the hearts of those watching, both at the venue and on television.

"It's a great disappointment. It [losing] tears at your gut, as it always has torn at my gut. It's not easy to take," he reflected after the final round.

For Cink, too, the gravitas of what had transpired on that fateful final day was tough to comprehend.

"I'm a little intimidated by this piece of hardware here," Cink admitted following his win. "There are a lot of emotions running through my mind and heart and I'm as proud as I can be to be here with this.

"It was fun watching Tom all week and I'm sure I speak for all the rest of the people too."

It's easy to feel for Cink. The 2009 Open was the crowning glory of his career but he is somewhat the forgotten champion, such was the narrative that played out around him.

Since lifting the Claret Jug, Cink has failed to win another trophy on the PGA or European Tour.

But this is where those blurred fairy-tale lines come into play. This was never a story of good versus evil, never a tale of morality.

More just an epic event encapsulating sporting theatre, with a dream ending never getting to see the light of day. Certainly from Watson's point of view, it was the greatest fairy tale never told.

"It would have been a hell of a story, wouldn't it?" Watson said.

It sure would have been, Tom, it sure would have been.

After the rains of Labor Day at Flushing Meadows, Tuesday saw the heat turned up on and off the court on day nine of the US Open.

As the mercury rose to leave spectators either basking in the sun or seeking shade, there were some scorching displays in the quarter-finals of the men's and women's singles.

Serena Williams needed only 44 minutes to see off Wang Qiang and reach the last four, while Grigor Dimitrov and Roger Federer thrilled the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd with an epic that ended with the 20-time grand slam champion being knocked out by the man once known as 'Baby Fed'.

Omnisport's man on the ground, Nicholas McGee, provides the details in our daily diary from New York.

 

EVERYBODY'S FREE (TO WEAR SUNSCREEN)

Forgetting your sunscreen in the hot weather is a nightmare scenario everyone wants to avoid.

But it's not big deal if it slips the minds of spectators at Flushing Meadows, as the US Open have them covered.

Forgot yours? No matter. There's plenty of free bottles to go around to make sure you'll tan, not burn.

NOT MUCH EXCITEMENT FOR NAVARRO

Number one seed in the girls' singles, Emma Navarro lost her second-round match on Grandstand to Oksana Selekhmeteva of Russia.

As a New Yorker who reached the final of the French Open and the semi-finals of Wimbledon, a more passionate crowd might have been expected to watch the 18-year-old.

However, the heat was clearly too much for one fan, who spent the contest lounging in the shade under the big screen.

THE MAN OF A THOUSAND VOICES

Moe Szyslak, Chief Wiggum, Professor Frink, they all have one thing in common. They were all voiced by Hank Azaria.

The Simpsons star was inside Arthur Ashe Stadium to take in Daniil Medvedev's four-set win over Stan Wawrinka.

As an actor with such great range, Azaria must have been impressed with the variety Medvedev demonstrated en route to a place in the last four.

SVITOLINA GOES 360

Elina Svitolina reached the semi-finals on Tuesday by seeing off Johanna Konta.

Svitolina's partner Gael Monfils could progress to the same stage of the men's singles on Wednesday, when the Frenchman will take on Matteo Berrettini.

Monfils attracted significant attention earlier in the tournament with his 360 smash on match point against Marius Copil.

Svitolina was asked about the possibility of her attempting one and, judging by her answer, it is highly unlikely the Ukrainian will be trying it against Williams.

"I have been practicing, as well," Svitolina said. "Actually this morning I did it. Not as good, though. I turn and then I hit."

NFL schedule-makers wasted no time getting to some of the intriguing matchups of the 2019 season, and fans deserve nothing less for the league's historic 100th year.

Are you ready for some football?

"We are thrilled to be kicking off the 100th season of football in the NFL. As a charter franchise, we cannot think of a better way to begin our centennial season by hosting our long-time rival in prime time at Soldier Field," Chicago Bears chairman George H. McCaskey said.

From a throwback Thursday rivalry opener pitting the Bears against the Green Bay Packers, to a modern-day classic featuring defending champions the New England Patriots against the Pittsburgh Steelers to kick off "Sunday Night Football," the league has more than a few treats in store for the first weekend.

But there are plenty more exciting games to look forward to down the road this season. It is 256 fixtures over 17 weeks, beginning Thursday in Chicago and ending on December 29.

Remember, it is a marathon not a sprint. With that in mind… Here are five circle-the-calendar games in 2019:

 

New Orleans Saints at Los Angeles Rams, Week 2

Sunday, September 15

The bad blood is still brewing in New Orleans, so the NFL is getting this game out of the way early. 

It's hard to forget the infamous no-call in which officials missed Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman interfering with Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis in the final minutes of last season's NFC title game. Because of the blown call, the matchup went into overtime, where the Rams kicked a field goal to win, 26-23, and punch their ticket to Super Bowl 53.

Revenge is a concept often spoken about in professional sports, but much less frequently applicable in the regular season on the pay-for-play level.

The Saints, however, undoubtedly will be out for revenge after being robbed of a shot at Tom Brady and the Patriots for the championship.

Baltimore Ravens at Seattle Seahawks, Week 7

Sunday, October 20

The last time we saw Earl Thomas in a Seahawks uniform, he was flipping the bird at his Seattle sideline while being carted off the field with a broken leg in an air cast.

Now, he is set to lead a Ravens defense in need of a voice after losing long-time franchise veterans like Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis over the years.

Baltimore are already building offensive momentum under second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson, and it will be interesting to see how he compares to the NFL's highest-paid player in Russell Wilson.

Carolina Panthers at San Francisco 49ers, Week 8

Sunday, October 27

Eric Reid will return to Levi's Stadium to face his former team for the first time since he signed with the Panthers last September.

The safety has stayed in the social consciousness spotlight since taking a knee in protest beside Colin Kaepernick, drawing both praise and criticism (not to mention numerous drug tests) since his return to the football field last October.

But the Niners look a little different since Reid last played with them, and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is poised for a comeback season after a knee injury spoiled his first year in San Francisco. His new weapons could even help get the team back to the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots, Week 14

Sunday, December 8

Settle in, because this game is guaranteed to be a treat.

The last time these teams met was the AFC championship in January, when Brady and company battled at a roaring Arrowhead Stadium for a narrow 37-31 overtime win to advance to Super Bowl LIII.

The teams had built up excitement during their high-scoring regular-season thriller last October when the they combined for 946 total yards and 30 points in the fourth quarter alone before New England sealed a 43-40 victory on a last-second field goal.

Is this Playoff Preview v.2? Maybe.

Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Jets, Week 16

Sunday, December 22

Le'Veon Bell's departure was not quite as loud as Antonio Brown's, but the Steelers certainly suffered without their star running back, especially after fellow rusher James Conner went down with an injury late last season.

To Conner's credit, he filled in admirably for Bell during his holdout as Conner compiled a total of 1,470 yards and 13 touchdowns.

On the other hand, it was Bell's locker that got looted by his Steelers team-mates when he opted not to show up midway through last season, and he gets the penultimate week of the campaign when playoff implications could be at stake for his own shot at retribution.

At the start of every NFL season, each team have the same 0-0 record. Combined with surprise trades, NFL draftees, free agency signings, shocking retirements and injuries, September signals the start of something new for all.

It has happened time again — a dark horse seemingly comes out of nowhere and has made a deep impression on that. Remember the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals that went to the Super Bowl, but were 4-12 the year before?

What about the 2008 Miami Dolphins who made it to the playoffs, even though they won just one game in 2007? Of course, the best example is Kurt Warner and the 1999 St Louis Rams, who won the Super Bowl that year, despite being 4-12 a season earlier.

Many eyes will be focused on the Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders this year, especially with the addition of Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. But what other teams have the potential to go from zero to hero?

Here we break down three teams that could surprise us all during the 2019 season.

 

San Francisco 49ers

Starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is back, Jerick McKinnon has also returned, running back Tevin Coleman now is with the team and San Francisco drafted defensive end Nick Bosa with the second overall pick. Not to mention, George Kittle might be the best tight end in the league now the Rob Gronkowski has retired.

A lot of the 49ers' problems in their shoddy 2018 season (which saw them finish 4-12) were because of injuries. Garoppolo tore his anterior cruciate ligament in week three, meaning backups C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullins had to take over for the rest of the year. McKinnon's knee gave him issues all last season and he is still recovering, but the depth with Coleman and Matt Breida gives the Niners more options.

Garoppolo struggled in his first preseason game but was able to step up and help San Francisco defeat the Kansas City Chiefs during its second preseason game. Garoppolo said playing at Arrowhead Stadium, where he tore his ACL last year, helped shake off any apprehension.

"A lot has happened in the year since then," Garoppolo said. "I thought it would be good to go back there just to remember everything that I've gone through."

On the other side of the ball, Bosa will have a helping hand from Dee Ford, who was traded from the Chiefs in the offseason after a 13-sack 2018 campaign.

As long as everyone stays healthy, the 49ers have all the pieces to at least win their division.

New York Jets

A far cry from their Super Bowl victory half a century ago, the Jets finished last season with a 4-12 record. New quarterback Sam Darnold looked like a shaky high schooler starting for the first time, the offense was sluggish and their third-down conversion rate was abysmal (32.24 per cent). 

But things have changed on the offensive side for New York. Running back Le'Veon Bell signed a four-year, $52million deal with the team and has had a quiet and drama-free offseason with the Jets. Bell also seemed to have helped Darnold gain some confidence and has heaped praise on the young quarterback.

"Sam has all the intangibles, he has the mindset. You can see him — he's a competitor. Every day in practice he literally wants to get better. It's hard to ... it's hard to describe someone that's like that because I'm like that," Bell said during the preseason.

"A lot of people go to practice and you're just practicing. They call a play and you run the play. When they call a play for me, I'm trying to work myself and I'm trying to like really get better at it. And I can see that in Sam. When he makes a throw he doesn't really like, I can see that in his face, 'I could've thrown that better.' You've got to love that about him because he literally wants to be perfect. He reminds me a lot of myself in that aspect."

Meanwhile, Ty Montgomery also was signed to a one-year $805,000 contract. Montgomery especially is intriguing, since he can take on the dual role of tailback and receiver. First-year Jets head coach Adam Gase said he was shocked Montgomery had not been claimed off waivers after the Green Bay Packers released him and envisions him being the perfect complement to Bell.

Montgomery later added that he and Bell work well together, making them an efficient and top-notch duo.

"I think we complement each other," Montgomery said. "I'm more of a receiver that's become a back and he's a back that's sort of become a receiver. Us being on the field together, we can line up anywhere. We can do anything. When he comes off, I come on. My mindset, the way I'm wired right now, nothing's going to change, nothing should change. Our offense should be just as efficient."

Indianapolis Colts

No Andrew Luck? No problem. The quarterback's surprise retirement at the age of 29 could have sent other teams into a tailspin, but the Colts have played without Luck before, although that result was not spectacular. In recent seasons, Luck has dealt with various injuries, and Jacoby Brissett has stepped up.

Colts head coach Frank Reich said Indianapolis are in "good hands" with Brissett, even though he has a 4-11 record with the team when starting. 

"You can just feel his presence in the huddle and on the field," Reich said. "The confidence that he's had, the chemistry with his receivers. We all know Andrew and T.Y. [Hilton] had a unique chemistry and connection. I can feel that developing. That's been very important that Jacoby has taken all those reps."

Brissett had been taking the majority of first-team reps during training camp and working with Hilton, Pro Bowl tight ends Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle, and running back Marlon Mack, who nearly had a 1,000-yard season last year, despite missing five games. 

The stage is set for Brissett to succeed. As long as the offensive line — which includes first-round picks Anthony Castonzo, Ryan Kelly and Quenton Nelson — stays strong, Brissett and the Colts still have the chance to claim an AFC South title.

A division won by the Steelers in three of the previous four years was left wide open last season as player drama boiled over in Pittsburgh.

The seemingly never-ending Le'Veon Bell saga ended up lasting the entire season, the end of which was overshadowed by receiver Antonio Brown and his apparent disconnect with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

By the offseason, the AFC North had seen one of the biggest turnovers in the league as two-thirds of the 'Killer B' trio was gone from Pittsburgh, Odell Beckham Jr joined Cleveland and Baltimore lost Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle and Brent Urban.

Now, the new-look AFC North appears to be up for grabs in 2019, and expectations are high in an unexpected city looking to end the league's longest active playoff drought dating back to 2002.

"This wasn't no business move," Beckham said of the New York Giants in an interview with Sports Illustrated after he was traded to Cleveland. "They thought they'd send me here to die."

But a little added star power does not mean the Browns are a guaranteed bet, especially with Earl Thomas levelling the field in Baltimore as the Ravens prepare for the post-Joe Flacco era under second-year signal-caller Lamar Jackson. It also does not hurt that he got a new weapon from the Saints in Mark Ingram.

Here is your 2019 AFC North preview.

Player to watch:

Odell Beckham Jr, Browns wide receiver

Beckham's blockbuster trade was arguably the biggest transaction of the offseason, and one of the burning questions entering the season is whether the merging of his big personality with second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield will work. The two have the potential to become a great quarterback-receiver duo because of their undeniable talent, but practice is not the same as in-game action, and challenges could arise when the regular season starts.

There is a lot of uncertainty in Cleveland as to whether this team can work together. But after being slowed down by injuries in recent years, including a hip issue during the preseason, OBJ could be poised for a breakout season, maybe cracking 1,500 yards receiving for the first time in his career.

Impact rookie:

Marquise Brown, Ravens wide receiver

In addition to Ingram, Baltimore bolstered their offense by drafting the speedy Oklahoma standout with the 25th pick. While he has not got as much work in this preseason as coach John Harbaugh would like because of offseason foot surgery, there is still reason to believe he can be a difference-maker for the offense.

"As a rookie, he hasn't had a lot of reps," Harbaugh told the team's official website. "So he'll have to get up to speed quickly. We'll have to be vigilant in what we ask him to do well - things that he can do well. It will be a challenge for them to cover him. He's really fast and he's got great hands. So that's the challenge the other way."

Brown had 75 receptions for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Sooners last season and impressed in the two preseason games he played, though he was limited to special teams duty in the final outing. Still, his explosiveness gives Harbaugh and the Ravens reason to be optimistic.

Coach under pressure:

Mike Tomlin, Steelers

Many have questioned whether Tomlin has lost control of his locker room in recent seasons. While the Rooney family does not give up on coaches easily, a change could be looming on the horizon.

Tomlin is just the third head coach hired by the Steelers since 1969 and he is among the league's longest-tenured, entering his 13th season.

His impressive resume includes a 125-66-1 record in the regular season, six division titles, eight playoff appearances and a Super Bowl win.

But the Steelers have slipped into dysfunction in recent seasons after long being the league's standard for stability -10 years without a championship has to feel like a lifetime for Pittsburgh fans. Perhaps the ownership is growing impatient, too.

Key matchup:

Steelers vs. Ravens, December 29

These rivals will clash in the regular-season finale in a game that may have important playoff implications. What could be better?

The Steelers and Ravens have met 50 times, with Pittsburgh winning 28 times to Baltimore's tally of 22. But the Ravens managed to edge out the Steelers in 2018 with the superior record for the first time since 2012, which is the same season Baltimore won the Super Bowl.

While the game will likely come down to defense, it is worth noting Ben Roethlisberger is 13-8 all-time against the Ravens.

Predicted finish:

It's hard to gauge how these roster overhauls play out, but the division is trending toward looking like 2018 all over again. As the Bengals rebuild under first-year coach Zac Taylor -staying healthy would be a good start for them - expect the Browns to put up a fight for their first winning season since 2007 but fall short as they extend their postseason absence for at least another year.

1. Ravens

2. Steelers

3. Browns

4. Bengals

Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs took the AFC West by storm last year.

The reigning NFL MVP had a history-making season in his first year as a starter and ended 2018 near the top of almost every statistical category after transforming the Chiefs and their offense.

Mahomes' list of accomplishments is long, but what is arguably the most impressive is how many times he was connecting with his receiving corps. He threw 50 touchdown passes - five short of Peyton Manning's single-season touchdown record — to lead the Chiefs to the AFC championship game.

But Mahomes was not the only player in Kansas City to have a breakout season. The Chiefs saw tight end Travis Kelce emerge as one of the best in his position. Then there are wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins, leaving Kansas City poised to see off the Los Angeles Chargers, the Denver Broncos and the Oakland Raiders for top spot in the division again.

"The sky is the limit for this offense," Kelce said in August. "The guys who have been here, that have been here the last couple years, especially last year; we're taking it up a level that we have in years past. You can just tell from the coaches’ excitement to their attention to detail, to how guys are reacting to their coaching. This team is going to be awesome and we're going to have a lot of fun on the offensive side of the ball."

However, the Chiefs potential 2019 run could be halted with some stiffer competition in the West.

The Chargers returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2013 and are still looking to get Hall of Fame candidate Philip Rivers to a Super Bowl, the Raiders added Antonio Brown and the Broncos have another veteran on offense in Joe Flacco. There are loaded rosters throughout the division, which could make for another exciting battle.

Player to watch 

Hunter Henry, Chargers tight end

The Chargers were without Hunter Henry last year after he suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury that ruined his third season in the NFL. Now, though, Henry is back and fully fit. 

He gives Rivers a reliable option after totalling 45 catches for 579 yards and four touchdowns in 2017 and 36 catches for 478 yards and eight scores during his rookie campaign in 2016.

"With Hunter Henry, we can stretch the field in the seams more," coach Anthony Lynn said during June's minicamp. "He's one of the better combo tight ends in the game because he blocks well. So just him back on the field, one of our biggest and better threats, it's going to open things up outside for Keenan Allen a little bit and Mike Williams."

Impact rookie 

Josh Jacobs, Raiders running back

Josh Jacobs was the highest-rated running back of the entire 2019 draft class and already has high expectations coming out of Alabama as the 24th overall pick. His size and power have been enough to impress quarterback Derek Carr.

"You know I've been able to hand the ball off to some really good running backs. I've played with some fun ones - Latavius [Murray], Marshawn [Lynch], Doug [Martin], and that's just the guys that've carried most of the footballs," Carr  said in mid-August. "I've played with a lot of good backs [and] watching [Jacobs'] vision was really impressive because I have the best seat in the house. I'm sitting back there playing 'Madden' tell him to cut back and trying to run for him. He's right up there with those guys."

Jacobs had four carries for 21 yards in his first - and only - preseason game.

Coach under pressure

Jon Gruden, Raiders

The coach turned analyst turned coach famously said, "If I can't get it done, I'm not going to take their money" last season after re-joining the Raiders on an eye-popping 10-year, $100million contract. Oakland went on to finish 4-12. 

Now, Gruden has some new talent and has regained his footing on the sideline. The Raiders are through the first of their rebuilding years and, with Las Vegas in the team's sights, Gruden has to try and put together a winning season if he wants to start a successful franchise in a new city in 2020.

Key matchup 

Chargers at Chiefs, December 29

This will not be the first time these two teams play. The Chargers and Chiefs will go head-to-head November 18 but the later matchup could have bigger playoff implications. Los Angeles punched their playoff ticket last season with a key win over Kansas City and this final regular-season game could again be crucial.

Predicted finish

It could be a close race to the top of the standings, but if Mahomes has a year close to last season it is hard to see any team in the division dethroning the Chiefs, who have won it for the past three years.

1. Chiefs

2. Chargers

3. Broncos

4. Raiders

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