Should Murray be suspended for throwing heating pad?

Ant, KAT lead Timberwolves' rout of Nuggets to take 2-0 series lead

Stephen A.: Pacers got in their own way

JWill on Pacers-Knicks officiating: Indiana got robbed of a moment

How IndyCar is managing interest from new teams

Can Liberty Media repeat F1's booming success with MotoGP?

How much is too much? It's a question IndyCar Series team owners are asking themselves as a recent wave of growth continues its march into uncharted territory.

Spread across 10 teams that place anywhere from two to five cars apiece on the starting grid, IndyCar's paddock has been filled with 27 full-time entries since 2023-a modern record. The heady number also represents the boundary of the series' comfort zone.

Some of the tracks that host IndyCar races can accommodate no more than 27 cars on pit lane, and among its two engine manufacturers, Chevrolet and Honda are reaching the limit of how many entries they can supply. And thanks to the recent announcement of an 11th team that's preparing to join the field, the series is expected to host 29 cars at every race in 2025. Prosperity's tipping point has been found.

Where Formula 1 and its entrants have ranged from being impolite to downright hostile in their efforts to police expansion beyond 10 teams and 20 cars, IndyCar -- owned since 2020 by business and racing mogul Roger Penske through his Penske Entertainment division -- has kept its doors open for business.

As a sporting league, IndyCar has operated for decades without a formal structure in place for participation in its series; teams have joined without having to buy a franchise and left at will with nothing more than cars and empty shops to sell. But with Penske at the helm, that's about to be modified in an impactful way as the establishment of a charter system, one that's designed to reward its existing team owners with memberships into an exclusive franchise club, is in the final stages of planning.

It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time, not all that long ago, when Formula One was not the darling of the motorsport world that it is today.

Video content was largely restricted on social media, making viral moments nothing more than a marketer's fantasy. In-person attendance in 2016 was 65% of what it was in 2022, and in the United States in particular, it was half. Television ratings in the U.S. that year were 38% of what they were last year.

Then along came Liberty Media, which completed its purchase of F1 in January 2017. Two years later, "Drive to Survive" debuted on Netflix -- part of the new owners' comprehensive approach to holistically promote storytelling around the series -- and not long after that, the sport became the star-studded pop-culture sensation that millions watch each Sunday on ESPN.

In MotoGP, the calendar may as well have just turned to 2017.

Last week, Liberty announced a takeover of MotoGP parent company Dorna Sports, acquiring approximately 86% of the company, which will remain independently operated under Liberty's Formula One Group. The takeover could attract regulatory scrutiny, but the deal is expected to be completed by the end of 2024.

It has been less than two weeks, but so far, the new owners have been clear: the product is good.

As a sporting league, IndyCar has operated for decades without a formal structure in place for participation in its series; teams have joined without having to buy a franchise and left at will with nothing more than cars and empty shops to sell. But with Penske at the helm, that's about to be modified in an impactful way as the establishment of a charter system, one that's designed to reward its existing team owners with memberships into an exclusive franchise club, is in the final stages of planning.

And there's a stipulation: Only those who participated as season-long entrants through 2023 are welcome. Under IndyCar's upcoming charter deployment, which is similar in many ways to F1's Concorde Agreement and the charter system devised by NASCAR, the absence of a business framework will be resolved. Ties between its 10 long-established team owners and the series will finally be established through the issuance of franchise contracts that cover 25 of the 27 full-time cars.

MotoGP's growth opportunities

Making MotoGP an international success story won't be as simple as pulling pages out of Liberty's "How We Made F1 Into a Season Full of Super Bowls" playbook.

Formula One has long traded on the extravagance of destinations like Monaco and nine-figure team budgets, creating a sense of luxury and exclusivity that goes hand in hand with the celebrity culture that has inundated the paddock, which routinely welcomes the likes of Brad Pitt and Serena Williams. What MotoGP sells is its racing, where top speeds approach 230 mph, riders drag their knees and elbows across the pavement at every corner and leave tire marks on one another in fiercely contested overtakes.

Where Liberty succeeded with F1, though, and where it must discover similar success with MotoGP, is in storytelling.

Expensive cars driven in exotic locales, riders reaching triple-digit speeds just inches off the asphalt, these moments appeal to core audiences, but history suggests that they alone aren't enough to attract new fans.

What drew legions of new (and almost equally importantly, younger) fans to F1 were the personalities of "Drive to Survive." Daniel Ricciardo has enjoyed an admirable grand prix career, one worth celebrating when the 34-year-old eventually decides enough's enough, but the man with eight career victories has as devoted of a following as you might expect of a multi-time world champion. That's almost entirely down to his persona, the colorful Australian practically became synonymous with "Drive to Survive."

Horner insists Verstappen not making Formula One 'boring'

Can the Golden Knights repeat as Stanley Cup champions?

Sixteen wins. That's all a team needs to hoist the Stanley Cup.

For some clubs, achieving the feat takes decades. For the Vegas Golden Knights, it took six years.

Vegas secured the first Cup victory in franchise history last spring by downing the Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars en route to overwhelming the Florida Panthers in a five-game Final that Vegas controlled from the start.

At times, the Golden Knights made earning those 16 wins look easy. But will Vegas' playoff run appear as effortless as it attempts to repeat as Cup champion?

Only eight teams in NHL history have won the Cup in consecutive years. Just two (the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning) have accomplished that in this millennium.

This has been a different season for the Golden Knights. Whereas last year Vegas entered the playoffs after a powerhouse regular season (as the Western Conference's top seed), this time around the Golden Knights battled their way to a late berth and barely approached the 100-point mark. Vegas has toggled between dominant and docile. Its identity hasn't always been clear -- except when it comes to pushing the envelope.

Vegas did just that, chasing after prized skaters at the trade deadline and landing Noah Hanifin and Tomas Hertl for exactly this time of year. What sort of impact will they have on the Golden Knights' chances to go back-to-back? What do the numbers say about Vegas now compared with last season? And what do players and executives around the league have to say about this year's squad -- and the challenge before them of winning a second Cup?

Stanley Cup playoffs picks: Every first-round NHL series

The six-month journey of the 2023-24 NHL regular season is complete. Sixteen of the league's 32 teams have been eliminated, and 16 have made the postseason bracket.

It's time for ESPN's hockey experts to serve up their picks on every first-round series, along with their calls on which team will skate with the Cup this June and which player will earn the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs.

Stanley Cup playoffs 2024: Bracket, schedule, scores, news

The six-month journey of the 2023-24 NHL regular season is complete. Sixteen of the league's 32 teams have been eliminated, and 16 have made the postseason bracket.

It's time for ESPN's hockey experts to serve up their picks on every first-round series, along with their calls on which team will skate with the Cup this June and which player will earn the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs.

Stephen A. Smith reacts to the death of O.J. Simpson

2024 NFL draft: Latest news, questions for all 32 team picks

The 2024 NFL draft is fast approaching, and teams are finalizing their boards. Round 1 begins April 25 in Detroit (8 p.m. ET on ESPN, ABC, ESPN App).

To prepare, we're giving you intel from all angles. We had each of our 32 NFL Nation reporters answer questions about the mindset of the team they cover heading into the draft, then asked analysts Matt Miller and Jordan Reid to give the inside scoop on what they're hearing about each team and which prospects could be fits throughout the draft.

What's next for Josh Allen and the Bills after the Stefon Diggs trade?

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The dust has started to settle in the wake of the second significant Buffalo Bills trade involving Stefon Diggs. The message to the public from One Bills Drive after trading Diggs to the Houston Texans was an acknowledgment that the 2024 Bills are a work in progress. While talent has departed, this team is still being constructed to compete.

"You're trying to win, and sometimes people may not see that," general manager Brandon Beane said last week. "[Trading Diggs] is by no means the Bills giving up or trying to take a step back or anything like that. Everything we do, we're trying to win, and we're going to continue to do that."

Last week's move put an exclamation mark on an offseason spent moving on from established veteran starters and clearing cap room for future seasons. The draft -- and the Bills' 10 picks -- is still to come, in addition to late free agent signings being a strong possibility. Trading away big-name players can be seen as a sign of rebuilding, and in some ways, that is what the Bills are doing by reconstructing the roster -- just not in the traditional sense of a teardown or starting over.

This team will have a new look, and will be younger, but the aim has not drastically changed, in large part, because there's a quarterback named Josh Allen on the roster. Trading Diggs leaves the Bills with unknowns, some of which will come down to the start of the season in September.

The numbers from Diggs' four-year tenure with the Bills speak for themselves. The three-year captain and four-time Pro Bowler (all with Buffalo) had 445 receptions and 5,372 receiving yards during his time in Buffalo. Per Elias Sports, that is the second-most receiving yards and third-most receptions by a player over a four-year span who began the following season with a different team. No player had more receptions during those four years.

Diggs will be remembered as one of the Bills' best trade acquisitions and crucial to the team's recent run of success. The records are lengthy. There's also no doubt the role Diggs played in helping Allen progress in his career. Prior to the Bills trading for Diggs in 2020, Allen had a total QBR of 49.5, completed 56% of his passes and threw 30 touchdowns to 21 interceptions. Since then, Allen's total QBR is 71.4, he's completed 66% of his passes and has thrown 137 touchdowns to 57 interceptions.

While Diggs' targets went down over the course of the 2023 season, but were still high. Diggs, 30, averaged 11 targets per game in his best performances of the year in Weeks 1-6, and that number dropped to an average of 8.6 for the rest of the season.

Only one wide receiver who caught passes last year is still on the roster: Khalil Shakir. Additions have come in the form of Curtis Samuel and Mack Hollins, but more than one contributor needs to be added to this roster. That very well could come in multiple forms from the Bills' draft picks, and moving around to get more out of the 10 picks is a strongly possibility, especially based on Beane's history.

That should pair with an increased role for last year's first-round pick, Dalton Kincaid, in the two-tight end sets with Dawson Knox under offensive coordinator Joe Brady in his first year in the role full time. Last season, the Bills were 24th in snaps with two-tight end formations (244) but ranked sixth in completion percentage (72.2%) and ninth in completions on those plays (91). Allen did have the fifth-worst QBR last season (65) when targeting tight ends, but it jumped to seventh-best (77) when targeting running backs and wide receivers.

Then there's the elements off the field. Six of the Bills' eight captains from last season are not signed to the roster, with Allen and Von Miller the only players remaining.

"It is going to look different, the Cs on the chest next year, and it's a good opportunity, though," Beane said. " It's an opportunity for some others to step up, and I think coach [Sean McDermott] and the locker room will be watching starting with the offseason program, who's leading, who's going to take over in some of these position rooms?"

The cryptic social media posts and viral moments exist, such as when Diggs quickly left the locker room after a playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in 2023, before being brought back in by running back Duke Johnson. It is worth noting an underrated element of Diggs' role on the Bills was what he did from a leadership perspective, including going out onto the field multiple times during games to encourage the defense and special teams, and in the wide receiver room. He was insistent in getting to safety Damar Hamlin at the hospital after his cardiac arrest, something that was meaningful to Hamlin.

"I don't tell him enough, but I look up to Stef," Shakir said during the season. "The way he handles his business, the way he is with us in the receiver room. We're watching film and he's pointing stuff out, making sure that everybody hears it, not just keeping it to himself, spreading his knowledge amongst everyone else."

There's a list of reasons for the trade that included creating a better cap situation in 2025 and the years to come by taking on the dead cap from Diggs this year. Another element for the Bills here -- as seen in being able to walk away from the trade with a 2025 second-round pick -- was the timing and value of the deal ahead of what is considered a deep wide receiver class.

Who is stepping up on and off the field will be answered in the weeks and months to come, and presents a significant test for Beane and McDermott, who joined the organization in 2017 and created a contender around Allen.

"Are we better today? Probably not," Beane said. "It's a work in progress, and we're going to continue to work on that. I would just hope that people know I'm competitive as hell, and I ain't giving in. And we're going to work through this and we're going to continue to look. And I'm confident in ... the guys we have on the roster and I'm confident in the staff we have upstairs that helps me and that will continue to find pieces to add and that will be ready to roll when it comes time in September."

How Mr. Irrelevant became the most beloved underdog in sports

ON THE THIRD DAY of the 2022 draft, Brock Purdy's mom brought home cake and balloons as he waited to be picked. He immediately gave her his version of a dirty look, which is just a slightly raised eyebrow.

"Mom, I told you I don't want a party," he said. "I might not even get picked."

"I know, I know," Carrie Purdy said. "This is just for us to celebrate a little after it's over. But if you do get picked..."

"You already told everybody in town to come over, didn't you?" Brock asked.

Carrie smiled. He knows her too well. She told about 100 friends and neighbors in Maricopa County, Arizona, to hustle over if they saw Brock's name get called. "I'll pop all the balloons and eat the cake myself if you don't get picked, OK?" she said. Brock laughed and nodded in agreement. He could live with that.

The draft's sixth round began to drag on, and Purdy and his younger brother, Chubba, eventually stopped watching the draft and decided to hit Chick-fil-A. Purdy kept getting a steady string of calls from his agent saying that a certain team hoped to get him ... but was picking somebody else. He'd go into another room and come back and say, "They want me as an undrafted free agent."

He came to grips with the idea that he'd have multiple interested teams to choose from if he went undrafted, so he ducked out for some chicken sandwiches. They came back an hour later, and Brock noted that the house was a little fuller with friends and neighbors who ignored the "if he gets drafted" stipulation of the party invite.

Purdy doesn't really get mad, though. One of his superpowers is a blood pressure that never seems to surge, which is something the NFL combine hasn't quite figured out how to measure. So Purdy just shook his head and plopped down on the couch with his dad, Shawn, as the seventh round began.

His dad leaned over and said he thought of something funny while he was gone. "What if you're Mr. Irrelevant, Brock?" he said. "That would be so cool, wouldn't it?"

Everybody laughed a little at the minuscule odds of him being exactly the No. 262 pick. Whether he went unpicked or last, his mom noted that he never sounded resigned to his draft position. In Purdy's head, this was only the latest in a lifetime of him being underrated as a quarterback. Purdy believed they'd all remember these moments a few years down the road when he made the Pro Bowl.

As the draft wound down, Purdy took a call from the 49ers and then came back into the living room. The Niners had the final pick of the draft, and they were passing on making Purdy Mr. Irrelevant. "Undrafted free agent," he said again.

The entire house filled up with silence. His mom tried to remind everybody that going undrafted meant Brock could pick the best landing spot for himself. "I just need a shot," Purdy chimed in.

He sat back down, and his mom noticed a sly look on her son's face. "Is he lying?" she wondered out loud. A few people thought maybe she was right, that Purdy was pranking them all, so they pulled out their phones and started recording, just in case. "I'm glad we did," Purdy's mom says, "because it's not like TMZ was there to show Brock getting drafted."

A few minutes later, Melanie Salata-Fitch, CEO of Irrelevant Week, came out to announce the last pick late Saturday afternoon. As she began the standard "With the 262nd pick in the 2022 NFL draft..." Purdy's name flashed across the screen before the selection was verbally announced and the whole room screamed.

Purdy's prank (sort of) worked. That phone call wasn't a call to make him an undrafted free agent. It was San Francisco 49ers GM John Lynch, coach Kyle Shanahan and CEO Jed York letting him know that they were ecstatic that they were about to pick him.

Purdy became Mr. Irrelevant. And two years later, with Purdy's help, it's official: Mr. Irrelevant has emerged as the most popular underdog in sports.


Stephen A: This is LeBron's last chance at title with the Lakers

2024 NBA mock draft: How the prospects performed in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight

The NCAA tournament is down to four teams as March Madness has given way to April.

The defending champion UConn Huskies have made easy work of each of their four opponents thus far, including a dominant 30-point run against a talented Illinois team in the Elite Eight. Multiple prospects on the UConn roster improved their standing in our latest NBA mock draft, including center Donovan Clingan cracking the top three for the first time this season.

Elsewhere, Zach Edey and Purdue stormed to the Final Four a year after being upset by a 16-seed in the first round.

Now, wins by UConn and Purdue will set up NBA scouts for a Clingan-Edey matchup that will have plenty of next-level implications.

Who else stood out during the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight over the past weekend?

ESPN NBA draft insiders Jonathan Givony and Jeremy Woo recap the second weekend of the tournament and provide an updated mock draft.

The player Stephen A. likes for NBA MVP over Nikola Jokic

Should there be concern after the Knicks' 2nd straight close loss?

Inside T.J. Oshie's emotional journey to 1,000 NHL games

Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan still remembers his first glimpse at T.J. Oshie's medical report when he acquired the then 28-year-old forward from the St. Louis Blues in 2015.

"I was like, 'Holy f---, this guy's got some miles on him.' He had all these things on the report," MacLellan recalled this week. "I didn't have any idea this was going on. We ended up doing the trade anyway, but I wondered how long this would last."

"If you had asked me if he'd play a thousand games back then, I would've said 'no.'"

Oshie, now 37, became the 390th skater in NHL history to reach the 1,000-game milestone on March 16 against the Vancouver Canucks. His intensity, physicality and willingness to compete for every inch of ice made him an impact player for the Blues and the Capitals over 16 seasons.

But that style of play also took its toll. Oshie played over 75 games just four times in his career. Upper-body injuries, lower-body injuries, surgeries, a series of concussions -- Oshie has experienced it all.

"It's got to go down as a thousand of the hardest games ever played in the NHL," said Karl Alzner, Oshie's former teammate with the Capitals.

Some players chase benchmarks for goals or points. Ever since he entered the league, Oshie targeted the 1,000-game plateau as his career measuring stick.

"There's no other milestones that I really set for myself in my career," he told ESPN this week. "I looked up to the guys that came before me that reached the thousand-game mark, seeing the ceremonies and the silver sticks they'd receive. It's a pretty cool thing and it's tough to do.

Oshie is being honored for his achievement on Sunday, before the Capitals' home game against the Winnipeg Jets. His teammates will wear his number during warmups. The team and the NHL have gifts to present him.

There were certainly times Oshie wasn't convinced he'd earn the celebration.

"It's a lot harder than I thought it was going to be, honestly," he said. "I think you when you have to go through it yourself, in the fashion that I did and the amount of time it took, it definitely takes its toll. But it was all worth it."

NHL playoff standings: Can the Blues still make the playoffs?

After the St. Louis Blues' Stanley Cup championship run in 2019, the team kept its fans engaged with playoff returns the next three seasons. An 81-point campaign in 2022-23 landed the Blues sixth in the Central Division and outside the playoff picture, and they are currently outside the playoff mix heading into Monday's two-game NHL schedule.

In fact, Stathletes projects their chances of a postseason berth at 5.8%. So, can they pull off a mild upset and qualify?

That process begins Monday night as the Blues host the team they are directly chasing for a wild-card spot, the Vegas Golden Knights (8 p.m. ET, NHL Network). The Knights have a four-point edge in the points column (83-79), and are two games ahead in regulation wins. Vegas also has a game in hand on St. Louis.

The bad news: After Monday's matchup, the Blues have the Edmonton Oilers, Nashville Predators, Carolina Hurricanes and Dallas Stars on the remaining schedule. The good news: They have the San Jose Sharks (twice!), Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks (plus a game apiece against the non-playoff-bound Calgary Flames and Seattle Kraken).

What about the Golden Knights? The defending Cup champs have some tough matchups on the way as well, including two against the Vancouver Canucks and one apiece against the Oilers, Preds, Winnipeg Jets and Colorado Avalanche; in addition, they have two contests against the Minnesota Wild, another club trying to chase them down. But, they also have a game against the Arizona Coyotes to break up that tough slate, and then close out with games against the Blackhawks and Ducks (just in case they need four more points to seal the deal).

So it's a tough task, but not an impossible one, for the Blues to extend their season beyond 82 games. A regulation win Monday night would make it just a little easier.

As we traverse the final stretch of the regular season, it's time to check in on all the playoff races -- along with the teams jockeying for position in the 2024 NHL draft lottery.

MLB players weigh in on top 100: Hits and misses of MLB Rank

We asked players for their feedback on our MLB Rank top 100 list, and oh, we got it.

Our hope was that players would ditch their social filters while critiquing our rankings and weigh in as if they had just swallowed a carafe of truth serum. Like Atlanta Braves first baseman Matt Olson, who was stunned by the standing of Mike Trout, against whom he has played 44 games in his career.

"I know there's always recency bias," Olson said, "but I'm a little more swayed by the guys who have been there and done it for a while ... Mike Trout at 19. That's ridiculous.

"Nolan Arenado at No. 44? Goldschmidt at 47? That's pretty wild."

Minnesota Twins shortstop Carlos Correa, known for his knowledge of advanced analytics, had the same reaction to Trout's standing: "Oooooh, I don't like it. I don't like it. Obviously, he's had injuries and hasn't been on the field as much, but when he's on the field, he's top 5, for sure."

The sentiments of Olson and Correa reflected a common theme heard from most of the players we spoke to: Many felt accomplished peers did not get enough credit for what they have done, and very young players got too much credit for future expectations.

MLB Rank 2024: Ranking baseball's top 100 players

Opening Day is almost here, which means it's time to ask the question that's on everyone's mind: Who will be the best player of the 2024 MLB season?

To create our annual MLB Rank list of the top 100 players in the sport, we presented a panel of ESPN baseball experts with pairings upon pairings of the biggest names in the game and asked them which player will be better in 2024.

However, that raises the question of how to compare players who have vastly different but still important roles across the sport. How do you compare the top starting pitchers to the best sluggers in the game? What about players who don't have much major league experience? And where do baseball's best relievers land? It seems impossible to pit these stars against one another, but we did it -- and one player came out on top.

Our list features Cy Young Award winners, MVPs, veterans building Hall of Fame résumés and young megastars who could dominate MLB for years to come. But who's No. 1? And where does the best player on your team rank?

ESPN MLB experts Jeff Passan, Buster Olney, Alden Gonzalez, Dave Schoenfield, Jesse Rogers and Brad Doolittle broke down why each player is ranked where they are and what to expect from them in the upcoming season.

Jump to team's top-ranked player:

American League
(No top 100 players: OAK)

National League
(No top 100 players: COL, WSH)

Lowe: Nikola Jokic and the most terrifying sight in the NBA

This week, we highlight Nikola Jokic and the running Nuggets, a screening Tyrese Haliburton, a nifty Bam Adebayo development, a theory about the demise of Jordan Poole and two delightful rituals you need to see.

NBA betting: Which teams should you bet on to make - or miss - the playoffs?

LeBron James is nine points away from another historic landmark. Already the NBA's all-time leading scorer, if James has even a well-below average scoring game he will become the first player to ever notch 40,000 points. That is just a staggering figure.

But did you know LeBron also holds the record for the most playoffs points scored in NBA history? With 8,023 playoffs points scored, LeBron is more than 2,000 points ahead of Michael Jordan's 5,987. The next two active players with the most playoffs points are Kevin Durant with 4,878 and Stephen Curry with 3,966.

The question on the table, is, will LeBron -- or Durant or Curry, for that matter -- get the chance to score more playoffs points this season?

The race for the final two playoffs spots, via the Play-in tournament, will be tight in both conferences.

In the West, only 3.0 games separate the fifth-seeded Suns from the Lakers and Warriors, who are tied for the final Play-in spots. Similarly, in the East, only 1.5 games separate the fourth-seeded Knicks, who would have homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs if the season ended today, and the eighth-seeded Pacers, who would have a road-game in the first round of the Play-in.

Let's take a look at a few of the teams vying for a spot that could have value in the futures betting market for making -- or missing -- the playoffs.

49ers still processing Super Bowl loss, falling short again

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As various San Francisco 49ers filed through the locker room at their facility, less than 48 hours removed from losing Super Bowl LVIII to the Kansas City Chiefs in overtime, the enormity of that devastating defeat had already sunk in. They just didn't want to believe it.

At one end of the locker room, defensive end Nick Bosa told reporters he needed time to digest the loss before looking to next season. At the other, left tackle Trent Williams, usually one of the team's most thoughtful and expansive interviews, had little to say. Others -- such as running back Christian McCaffrey, tight end George Kittle, receiver Deebo Samuel, fullback Kyle Juszczyk and quarterback Brock Purdy -- described their upcoming grieving process.

All of them -- including coach Kyle Shanahan -- had declined to rewatch what took place at Allegiant Stadium. None were sure they'd be able to stomach it anytime soon. But they made it clear that what happened in Vegas certainly won't stay there.

"It really hit me, and then it would go away then it hit me again and it's just like it don't even feel real," Samuel said. "It's a different type of feeling. Like I don't even have the answer. ... It's like one of the biggest heartbreaks you can deal with."

Dealing with heartbreak has become an unwanted offseason tradition for the 49ers. It started with their loss to the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV to conclude the 2019 season. In 2021, they fell short in the NFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Rams. In 2022, they played most of another NFC Championship Game without a healthy quarterback in what became a blowout loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

In each season, the Niners had taken a different, occasionally circuitous path to get back on Lombardi's doorstep. The final defeat was always difficult to swallow but was often buoyed by an internal belief they could return.

To their credit, the Niners have put action behind those beliefs. But Super Bowl LVIII seemed to hit the hardest. Not just because they lost a game that was there for the taking, but also because of the cumulative effect of the previous near misses. And they might be running out of chances to rectify them, at least in their current iteration.

"It's gut-wrenching," general manager John Lynch said. "And ultimately, we're going to have to live with for a lifetime the reality that we didn't get it done this time. But I say this time because that's this time. It hurts. And right now, everyone's grieving.

"It's not just going to be OK right away, but you understand that the only thing you can do is use this fuel to propel us forward. And that's where our mindsets are at, or at least where they will arrive at some point."

Getting to that point might take a little longer this time given just how close the Niners came to winning the franchise's long-coveted but elusive sixth Lombardi Trophy. The memories of a third-quarter punt bouncing off cornerback Darrell Luter Jr.'s foot, the missed protection by guard Spencer Burford against Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones on a key third down in overtime, the Chiefs blocking Jake Moody's fourth-quarter extra point and countless other plays that could have swung the game in San Francisco's favor will linger.

Can 49ers, Chiefs keep their stars? Free agents, extensions

The challenge for the great teams in a salary cap league is staying great.

In the NFL, as players start to play better and help teams compete for and win Super Bowls, they obviously start to deserve more money. The trick is to re-sign stars or replenish with draft picks, and deciding when to take each path is what makes cap management a jigsaw puzzle. The best teams often seem to be the ones with the toughest decisions.

That brings us to the 2023 season's Super Bowl teams. The Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers gave us an all-time classic matchup that we'd love to see again. But while it's possible these two teams could meet in the Super Bowl again next season in New Orleans, it's not going to be easy. And even if they can get there, the odds are they'll both look different.

The Chiefs and 49ers each have key free agents they need to decide whether to re-sign or let walk. They both have stars who are due for contract extensions, either this offseason or very soon. And neither has a ton of cap space.

But yes, it can be done. Both the Chiefs and 49ers have the ability, with some salary cap maneuvering, to pay everybody and bring back their Super Bowl rosters. It won't be easy, and I'm not sitting here saying that's what will happen. But we wanted to map out a couple of blueprints for how the Super Bowl LVIII participants can keep their rosters together. Let's start with the champs.

Buy the Baltimore Orioles? There couldn't be a better time

It's hard to imagine a time to buy the Baltimore Orioles that would offer new owners more growth potential in their pending purchase -- or a more willing fan base to woo. Assuming the sale by the Angelos family is approved by other owners, the hero potential is enormous for David Rubenstein and his group of minority owners.

The team is already loaded with some of the best stars of baseball's youngest generation, from Adley Rutschman to Jackson Holliday. Following years of tanking, the Orioles still have no long-term financial commitments. And Rubenstein & Co. will ride into Camden Yards wholly welcomed by a passionate fan base that has endured despite years of angry frustration with the ownership of Peter Angelos, who bought the franchise for $173 million in 1993, and in more recent years, with Angelos' son John.

The bar of leadership has been so low that all the new owners have to do to distinguish themselves is to sign just one of the organization's core youngsters to a long-term deal. If they manage to lock up Rutschman, Holliday and Gunnar Henderson into the future, the good folks of Charm City might rename roads for the new owners, with Calvert Street giving way to Rubenstein Way.

Latest updates on Oakland A's stadium plans, Las Vegas move

With Major League Baseball typically sharing a tentative schedule for the next season with teams early every year, the Oakland A's were supposed to have figured out by the end of December where they'll play in 2025 and beyond before moving to Las Vegas in 2028. That didn't happen. A mid-January deadline passed. Soon enough an end-of-January target will, too.

Even after the A's secured the deal to leave Oakland permanently, the franchise's near-term future remains in limbo. It's not just the MLB-low payroll or the lack of significant improvement of a roster from a team that went 50-112 last year. It's something as fundamental as not having a home following the expiration of their lease with the Oakland Coliseum after this season.

Here is what you need to know about where the A's stadium plans currently stand, according to multiple people involved with the process to find the team a home.

What is holding up the decision?

It's pretty simple: local TV money. The A's contract with Comcast to broadcast their games on NBC Sports Bay Area calls for the team to receive about $70 million next year, sources said. But if the A's aren't in Oakland, the regional sports network is no longer bound to pay the rights fee. The delicate balance between maximizing TV money and securing a temporary home is complicated by the strict nature of the Comcast deal. Even a move to play in a Triple-A park in Sacramento, about 85 miles northeast of Oakland, would not be covered under the A's current contract.

Already the move to Las Vegas will take the A's from the 10th-largest TV market to one ranked 40th. Clearly TV money was a secondary consideration for the permanent move. But a temporary one, even if the A's negotiate a new deal with Comcast or another regional sports network, could be for a fraction of what they're set to receive now. That very conundrum -- and the leverage Comcast holds -- is gumming up a resolution.

What are the likeliest options?

The two cities at the top of the list, according to sources: Sacramento, the home of the San Francisco Giants' Triple-A affiliate, and Salt Lake City, which would love to use the A's as proof of concept that it warrants an expansion franchise in the future.

Both cities have NBA franchises that regularly sell out all of their home games. Sacramento is the 20th-ranked TV market, while Salt Lake City is 27th. Sacramento offers an easier short-term solution -- mayor Darrell Steinberg told the San Francisco Chronicle he is "over the moon about the possibility" -- while Salt Lake City is, for MLB, the longer-term play.

Sacramento's Sutter Health Park seats more than 10,000 -- and, with standing-room-only tickets and lawn seats, can go up to 14,000. The ownership group in Salt Lake, which previously controlled the Utah Jazz, is building a new Triple-A stadium for 2025 in South Jordan, Utah, that could seat up to 11,000.

While Sacramento previously had shown no aspirations to bring MLB to town, Salt Lake City has been effusive in its desire. After A's officials recently toured the city to assess its viability, Big League Utah, the group at the heart of Salt Lake City's efforts, erected seven billboards around the city that said: "UTAH WANTS THE A'S."

Were the A's to land in Sacramento, they could renegotiate their deal with NBC Sports Bay Area, which broadcasts Kings games. Should they move to Salt Lake City, sources said, the team could land a new deal, though because that television territory currently belongs to the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, it would add an extra layer of negotiation.

NFL playoff game picks, guide: Chiefs-Ravens, Lions-49ers

The NFL playoffs' conference championship round schedule for the 2024 season has two great matchups, and we've got you covered with what you need to know heading into the weekend. Our NFL Nation reporters bring us the biggest keys and a bold prediction for each matchup.

Additionally, ESPN Stats & Information provides a big stat to know and a betting nugget for each contest, and our Football Power Index (FPI) goes inside the numbers with a game projection. Analytics writer Seth Walder picks out each matchup's biggest X factor, Matt Bowen identifies a key game-planning matchup to watch in both games, and Kevin Seifert tells us what to know about the officiating. Finally, Walder and Eric Moody give us final score picks for both games. Everything you want to know is here in one spot to help you get ready for an exciting weekend of NFL playoff football.

Let's get into the full conference championship slate, including Patrick Mahomes vs. Lamar Jackson and Brock Purdy vs. Jared Goff.

AFC title game is validation for Ravens' Jadeveon Clowney

THE TALK AROUND Rock Hill, South Carolina, was that when Jadeveon Clowney started Pee Wee football, he looked like a man among boys. The locals would cast sidelong glances his mother's way, and when Josenna would insist he wasn't full-grown, that he was just the right age for Pee Wee and she had the birth certificate to prove it, they'd concede, but not without indignation. "Fine," they'd say. "But don't let him hit my kid."

And there he was, some 15 years later in the summer of 2014, once again making everyone else look out of their league. The ink was barely dry on Clowney's rookie contract with Houston, and he was already doing unspeakable things to Denver's offensive line all week long in preseason scrimmage.

"Most guys, they'd take about three or four steps to get to you, to that point of contact," says Duane Brown, the Texans' Pro Bowl left tackle at the time. "And he was leaping off the ball and getting there in two." Brown had lined up against Clowney enough that preseason to relish the break these joint practices in Colorado afforded him. So he watched with commiseration when the Broncos' own Pro Bowl left tackle, Ryan Clady, flailed and whiffed and let Clowney make Peyton Manning's life downright miserable for the run of intersquad practices that week in August.

How do NHL teams pick their captains? Process, criteria, more

Fixing whatever was wrong with the Vancouver Canucksbecame Rick Tocchet's priority when he was hired by the team last January. And fix them he did, as they won 20 of the final 36 games of the 2022-23 season.

Tocchet was also charged with another task by the Canucks' front office: finding the next captain. Going through the search prompted him to step back. He wanted to see how players reacted after the Canucks won or lost. If Tocchet voiced his displeasure with the team's performance, he wanted to see how particular players approached practice the next day.

"I saw a lot of players grow over those three months," Tocchet said. "Then came the hard decision: Do you wait a year? Is the guy we're going to pick, is he ready? Are there a bunch of guys that are ready? Or do we wait? That was the big decision. Do we wait or do we pull the trigger because we have a guy who's emerging."

Ultimately, the Canucks chose Quinn Hughes as their next captain. But what was the process they used to get there? Who were the stakeholders involved in the decision? How long did it take? And how much did it help to meet Hughes' parents before giving him one of the most important roles in the NHL?

These are just a few examples of the types of questions NHL franchises must answer when selecting a captain.

A deep dive into this process is even more relevant this season. The Canucks were one of six teams to choose a new captain, while five teams have yet to name one. That means 11 teams -- or more than one-third of the NHL -- faced some sort of captaincy decision within the past six months.

What one team might seek in a captain could be different from another; the selection process can vary too. Some franchises seek input from numerous voices. Others prefer a smaller circle. There have been times when either the front office or ownership makes the final decision. Others leave it up to the coach.

Even that part of the process raises questions about whether players should have a more active role in determining who becomes captain, now that player empowerment has taken on greater importance in professional sports leagues.

"A lot of people take pride in it," New Jersey Devils captain Nico Hischier said. "It's a huge honor if a team has the faith and the confidence in you to lead the team. In the hockey world, it's an honorable thing to get that because it comes with such a high standard."

Who are the current NHL team captains? 2023-24 season list

Prior to the start of the 2023-24 NHL season, five teams named players to take over as captain.The process to pick a captain can vary by team, and there are currently five clubs that do not have a captain.

The shortest tenured captain is Calgary Flames forward Mikael Backlund (Sept. 27, 2023), while the longest tenured is Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby (May 31, 2007).

Here is the list of each team's current captain:

Anaheim Ducks: no captain
Arizona Coyotes: no captain
Boston Bruins: Brad Marchand
Buffalo Sabres: Kyle Okposo
Calgary Flames: Mikael Backlund
Carolina Hurricanes: Jordan Staal
Chicago Blackhawks: no captain
Colorado Avalanche: Gabriel Landeskog
Columbus Blue Jackets: Boone Jenner
Dallas Stars: Jamie Benn
Detroit Red Wings: Dylan Larkin
Edmonton Oilers: Connor McDavid
Florida Panthers: Aleksander Barkov
Los Angeles Kings: Anze Kopitar
Minnesota Wild: Jared Spurgeon
Montreal Canadiens: Nick Suzuki
Nashville Predators: Roman Josi
New Jersey Devils: Nico Hischier
New York Islanders: Anders Lee
New York Rangers: Jacob Trouba
Ottawa Senators: Brady Tkachuk
Philadelphia Flyers: no captain
Pittsburgh Penguins: Sidney Crosby
San Jose Sharks: Logan Couture
Seattle Kraken: no captain
St. Louis Blues: Brayden Schenn
Tampa Bay Lightning: Steven Stamkos
Toronto Maple Leafs: John Tavares
Vancouver Canucks: Quinn Hughes
Vegas Golden Knights: Mark Stone
Washington Capitals: Alex Ovechkin
Winnipeg Jets: Adam Lowry

Sources: Rangers' Filip Chytil returns from training in Czechia

Rangers center Filip Chytil is traveling back to New York on Monday after making progress training at home in Czechia while recovering from a head injury, sources told ESPN.

Chytil, 24, returned to his offseason home in late December as a mental reset in his rehab. He has not played since Nov. 2, appearing in just 10 games this season.

Chytil trained with his brother Libor, a strength and conditioning coach who posted on Instagram that Filip "made good progress" over the last three weeks.

"I believe that Fil will be back soon and stronger than before," Libor Chytil posted, while thanking the Rangers for "their trust in the process."

There is no timetable for Filip Chytil's return to the lineup, sources told ESPN. The team is on a road trip, and he could resume training sessions when they return to New York.

This month, Chytil posted a photo on Instagram of him skating with countryman and NHL legend Jaromir Ja

NBA trade deadline 2024: What every contender needs for a deep playoff run

As NBA teams prepare for the Feb. 8 trade deadline, let's consider what the league's best teams should be seeking in deals.

Determining which teams are contenders is tricky in a season where nine teams are on track to win at least 48 games. It would be the most teams in that category since 2019-20, and that group doesn't include three of the preseason favorites in the West -- the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns, all languishing in play-in tournament range or worse.

For now, we'll use the current title odds at ESPN BET, which have nine teams at +2000 (20-to-1) or better to win the title. That group includes the surprise teams atop the Western Conference ahead of the defending champion Denver Nuggets, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Oklahoma City Thunder, but also the Lakers and the Suns by virtue of the likelihood they'll act like contenders in pursuit of a deep playoff run with veteran rosters.

Let's go team by team through this group to see what weaknesses have been apparent from the first half of the regular season and how that could influence their approach to the deadline.

NBA trade grades: Breaking down the Pacers three-team trade for Pascal Siakam

The NBA trade deadline is on the horizon, the market is starting to heat up and a popular name in trade talks has been dealt.

After a weekend trade between Washington and Detroit, the Toronto Raptors made their second deal of the season, sending two-time All-Star Pascal Siakam to the Indiana Pacers in a three-team trade also involving the New Orleans Pelicans. The Raptors receive forward Bruce Brown, guard Kira Lewis Jr., Jordan Nwora, two 2024 first-round picks and a 2026 first-round pick, while New Orleans gets cash considerations from the Pacers. Indiana will also receive a future second-round pick in the deal.

After relative quiet following the blockbuster trade of James Harden from the Philadelphia 76ers to the LA Clippers in late October, there has been another shake-up in the association after the New York Knicks acquired forward OG Anunoby, center Precious Achiuwa and guard Malachi Flynn from the Toronto Raptors in exchange for guard Immanuel Quickley, forward RJ Barrett and a 2024 second-round pick (via Detroit).

College football transfer portal: Recent winners, top players available, big questions

The transfer portal window closed at midnight on Jan. 2, which marked the final date that undergrads could enter their name in the database. Since then, more and more top transfers have made their commitment to new schools.

Ole Miss, Louisville and Colorado sit atop ESPN's best portal classes, but there has been more movement since those rankings came out. There have been important quarterback commitments, one of the nation's top running backs found a new home and an SEC team restocked its roster over the last week.

Not everyone has filled their needs, though, and some schools still have questions going forward. Here are some recent winners and what questions still remain from the transfer portal cycle.

Ranking quarterbacks in 2023 NCAA football transfer portal

College football's transfer portal window officially opened Dec. 4, but graduate players looking for new schools and players from teams whose coaches were fired are starting to stream into the database.

Quarterbacks have become the stars of the transfer portal, since teams are always looking for instant-impact players at the position. The portal has become the quickest way to fix holes, and that will be the case heading into the 2024 season, as well. Among the transfer quarterbacks who turned in outstanding performances this season? Bo Nix (Oregon), Michael Penix Jr. (Washington), Sam Hartman (Notre Dame), Caleb Williams (USC) and Jayden Daniels (LSU).

So far, double-digit quarterbacks with starting experience have entered the portal, and they could find their new schools soon. To make it easier to follow who's available, let's rank the best available signal-callers, starting at the top. We'll continue to adjust these rankings as new quarterbacks enter the portal.

Passan: Where MLB free agency, trades stand entering 2024

Every MLB offseason evolves at its own pace, and this winter, that tempo is slow. It's not just slow for a specific subset of free agents. It's slow for the nine-figure guys, slow for outfield bats, slow for relief pitchers. It's slow enough that spring training starts in less than six weeks, and well over 100 players remain jobless.

While it's easy to blame the free agencies of Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto for gumming up the proceedings, only a handful of teams were ever realistically in the bidding for either. So while the pair's measured approaches did the market no favors, there's a far simpler explanation: Teams and players are digging in, both sides waiting to see which blinks first.

The truth is, this is normal-ish. Not every winter is like 2022-23, when 36 of the 37 players who received guarantees of $20 million or more were signed before New Year's Day -- the lone exception, Carlos Correa, who'd agreed to two deals before Jan. 1 that were nullified during the medical review. In 2021, J.T. Realmuto and DJ LeMahieu signed in late January and Trevor Bauer in February. Josh Donaldson was a mid-January deal in 2020, a year after the two best players in the class, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, stretched into February.

But executives, agents and others watching free agency unfold agree: It's rare that this many productive players are available after the calendar turns. We're into January and the reigning National League Cy Young winner, a World Series star and a 28-year-old former MVP center fielder are all unsigned. This offseason's biggest free agent splurges have also been dominated by a single team while many others have sat back. To wit:

The Los Angeles Dodgers' free agent outlay this winter: $1.043 billion.

The free agent outlay of the next 19 highest-spending teams this winter: $1.040 billion.

Then there are the four teams that haven't spent a dollar in free agency this offseason, and it's quite the mixture: the New York Yankees (who have been quite active on the trade front), Chicago Cubs, Miami Marlins and Colorado Rockies.

Excuses abound for the slow pace of free agency -- the instability of local television contracts is teams' pretext du jour -- but everyone recognizes that almost every team ultimately wants to improve, and the simplest way to do so is by signing players better than the ones currently on rosters.

So the market will move, though perhaps not with the urgency this time of year would typically suggest. Over the next 10 days, teams and agents will spend a significant amount of their bandwidth posturing in advance of the Jan. 12 arbitration-exchange date. There will be signings between now and then, yes, but the free agent deluge should arrive between Jan. 12 and the first arbitration hearing Jan. 29.

MLB free agency reset: Moves we liked, ones we didn't, what's next

We're into 2024, and the new MLB season is just a few months away. In the first half of free agency, we had some splashy moves -- you might have heard that Shohei Ohtani signed a $700 million deal? -- and plenty of smaller pickups. But plenty of MLB stars are still on the market, and lots of teams still have holes to fill. Which moves did we like? Which left us with more questions than answers? We asked ESPN MLB insiders to weigh in -- and make one prediction for the deals still to come.

The Pistons have larger issues than their record-tying 28-game skid

BOSTON -- TD Garden's visiting locker room was silent.

It was about a half-hour after the Detroit Pistons lost their 28th consecutive game -- a 128-122 overtime defeat to the league-leading Boston Celtics. For much of the contest, it seemed like this might -- finally -- be the moment Detroit would snap its losing streak of two months.

Instead, it became the latest painful outcome in a season full of them.

The weight of the streak, and how close Detroit came to escaping it, hung heavily in the air.

"I think it shows like we're on the same level as all these teams we're playing against," Pistons star Cade Cunningham said. "There's no team that I've ever come across in the NBA where I felt like I was going into a slaughterhouse."

Moral victories, though, don't end losing streaks. And, with Thursday's loss, Detroit tied the Philadelphia 76ers -- who dropped the final 10 games of the 2014-15 season and the first 18 of the 2015-16 campaign -- for the most consecutive losses by an NBA franchise.

But while those "Trust The Process" 76ers were designed to lose games while rebuilding through the NBA draft lottery, these Pistons were not.

"We wanted to be competing every day, [to have] a chance for the play-in, playoffs," Pistons owner Tom Gores told reporters last week. "We wanted our players to grow. That would have been a success for us. ... Those were the expectations: to compete, grow and be near the playoffs. That's how you grow the most.

"Make no mistake about it, that was the expectation."

A team doesn't expect to be sitting at the bottom of the standings when it drops $78.5 million to hire a new coach, landing Monty Williams in May after he'd been fired by the Phoenix Suns two years removed from coaching them to the NBA Finals.

But here is where the Pistons sit: with a 2-29 record, no clear vision for the franchise's future and no guarantee its run of futility will end anytime soon.

"At this point, this is all we have right now," Pistons forward Bojan Bogdanovic told ESPN before Thursday's game. "So you gotta get one W and keep growing, even if it's hard right now to find anything positive."

NBA Score

Lowe: Morant's instant impact, the sad-trombone Pistons and the rookie who would like your attention

In the last nine things I liked and disliked of 2023, we look at why the Memphis Grizzlies are back on track with Ja Morant, how the Detroit Pistons are on the verge of becoming basketball's Zippy Chippy and why the Charlotte Hornets should be happy with Brandon Miller's play so far.

Ja Morant is back

Morant will not give his harshest critics what they want -- submissive humility and cosmetic change they can point to and say, "The young man gets it now." He is going to talk trash and dance after game-clinching shots, and it is not for me to litigate whether Morant's brief dance after his game-icing dunk against the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday -- the team's third stirring comeback since Morant's return, and second in New Orleans -- featured a (very) brief gun gesture or was merely Morant taunting the crowd with a popular local dance.

(Would it be better for Morant to not allow for any confusion? Of course. The league appears indifferent, having issued no statement.)

Morant's father, Tee, is still courtside, standing and cheering. Tee Morant told SiriusXM NBA Radio last week that the family has made no changes to Morant's "inner circle."

Morant won't cut off childhood friends or boot his father from courtside seats. Could you? Does it matter? The only thing that matters is whether Morant and that inner circle stop doing the things that forced the NBA's hand in suspending Morant 25 games.

That is an enormous cost, to Morant and the franchise he is supposed to steward. In four games with Morant, the Grizzlies reminded everyone what they were on track to be. (Morant missed Memphis' blowout loss to the Denver Nuggets on Thursday with an illness.) As is, they are 10-20. They need to go to 31-21 to reach .500 -- where the No. 10 Phoenix Suns are now. It's possible. The margin for error and injury is zero. No team is so young and so good that it can punt an entire season. If this ends up a wasted year, it will be Morant's fault. That is a permanent stain.

NFL Week 17 picks, schedule, odds, injuries, fantasy tips

The Week 17 NFL schedule for the 2023 season is stacked with great matchups, and we got you covered with what you need to know heading into the weekend. Our NFL Nation reporters bring us the biggest keys to every game and a bold prediction for each matchup.

Additionally, ESPN Stats & Information provides a big stat to know and a betting nugget for each contest, and our Football Power Index (FPI) goes inside the numbers with a game projection and a look at the playoff picture. Analytics writer Seth Walder picks out each matchup's biggest X factor, and fantasy analyst Eric Moody hands out helpful fantasy football intel. Finally, Walder and Moody give us final score picks for every game. Everything you want to know is here in one spot to help you get ready for a loaded weekend of NFL football.

Let's get into the full Week 17 slate, which starts with a Saturday showdown between the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys on ABC, ESPN and ESPN+. On Sunday, there is a Tua Tagovailoa-Lamar Jackson showdown in Baltimore, another Bengals-Chiefs matchup and a battle for the NFC South. (Game times are Sunday unless otherwise noted -- there is no NFL game on Monday this week -- and all playoff chance percentages are via FPI and independent of other results.)

Dolphins-Ravens preview: Match-ups, X factors, stats to know

BALTIMORE -- When the Miami Dolphins returned to their team facility this week, they asked each other about what they did for Christmas and headed to their meeting rooms.

There was no talk about playoff scenarios heading into a showdown between the AFC's top teams on Sunday, when the Ravens (12-3) host the Dolphins (11-4) at M&T Bank Stadium (1 p.m. ET, CBS).

"We understand what's at stake," Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa said Wednesday. "I think if you overdo it, it could get to a point where you start chasing ghosts in a way.

"Whereas if you study the way you study, and you do things the way you've done things, and then if you add just a little one each time on top of that, we could possibly be the team that we've always wanted to be since training camp."

This marks the fourth time in the last 30 seasons that the top two teams from a single conference will meet in the final two weeks of the regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Baltimore, which has won five in a row and is a 3.5-point favorite, can clinch the AFC's No. 1 seed, gain a first-round bye and secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by beating the Dolphins. The Ravens have earned the AFC's top spot once in their 27 years of existence.

Miami can overtake the Ravens for the No. 1 seed by winning its final two games. The Dolphins play host to the Buffalo Bills in the regular-season finale.

"It's an exciting situation to be in," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "You get into this time of the year, [and] you play yourself into these types of a game where you have an opportunity where the game means so much, where winning one game brings such a big reward because of what you've done up until this point.

"That's an earned thing, and the Dolphins have earned the same thing. So, it's that kind of a game."

ESPN Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and Dolphins reporter Marcel Louis-Jacques break down why each team is a strong bet to win Sunday, and give a vulnerability and X factor.