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Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle having NFL MVP season


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SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Lorenzo Reyes gives us a sure thing and a potential upset heading into Week 14 of the NFL season.
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A quick glance at items of interest as Week 14 rolls on … 

Who’s hot: Aaron Donald. In this season of record-setting offensive fireworks in the NFL, it would be quite the irony if a defensive player somehow winds up as the league’s MVP. Sure, gunslinger QBs Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes are considered the frontrunners, and Todd Gurley is in the mix, too. But there are legitimate reasons to consider the Rams’ remarkable D-tackle for an honor that only Lawrence Taylor (1986) and Alan Page (1971) have won from that “other” side of the ball. First: Gurley might even suggest that Donald is the best player on the best team, as the Rams (11-1) take the NFL’s best record into the Sunday night showdown against the Bears at Soldier Field. Also: With an NFL-high 16½ sacks, Donald could break Michael Strahan’s NFL-record 22½ sacks from 2001, a mark aided by a Brett Favre flop in the waning stages of the finale. If Donald (with six multi-sack games this season) gets the record, let’s hope there are no such assists. That he has a shot at it while playing on the interior line is a testament to his greatness, bolstered by speed, strength and fire. And you want valuable? No other Rams defender has more than four sacks. Donald also leads the league in tackles for loss, quarterback hits and naturally, sack yardage. True wrecking-ball stuff. And his case rests on this fact: The Rams have allowed zero touchdowns this season on drives when Donald has notched a sack.

Pressure’s on: Ron Rivera. After watching franchise quarterback Cam Newton throw four interceptions at Tampa, the Panthers coach opted for drastic measures: He fired two defensive assistants (Brady Hoke, Jeff Imamura) and stripped D-coordinator Eric Washington of play-calling duties. What, maybe a tighter defense with Rivera calling the plays will help Newton better protect the football? At least it might create more chances for shorter fields. During the four-game losing streak that Carolina (6-6) takes to Cleveland, the defense produced its lone takeaway last weekend, while the secondary was stung for big plays in too many key situations. Rivera is a two-time NFL Coach of the Year who once rallied the Panthers from a six-game losing streak to win a division title, so he’s had teams before catch fire down the stretch. But still, turning a 6-2 start into .500 can’t be a good way to impress Carolina’s new owner. 

Key matchup: Patrick Mahomes & Crew vs. Terrell Suggs & Company. The NFL’s highest-scoring offense (37 points per game) meets the NFL’s lowest-scoring defense (17.8). What gives? So often, defense prevails in such matchups. But there’s nothing conventional about Mahomes, who leads the league with 41 TD passes and triggers Kansas City’s innovative offense with uncanny ability to zip darts on the run and from a variety of angles. The Ravens have allowed the fewest yards and third-fewest TD passes (through Week 13), but the pass rush that was once the mark of Baltimore’s D has been so inconsistent. Yes, the Ravens collected a franchise-record 11 sacks in the Week 6 shutout at Tennessee. But in six games since then, they’ve had just nine sacks. They could use a big game from Suggs, tied with Za’Darius Smith for the team lead with 6½ sacks. Of course, rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson is an X-factor, and not merely because his legs can boost a potent rushing attack that might control the clock. Mahomes and the quick-strike Chiefs don’t need a lot of clock. Jackson might instead be critically challenged to help Baltimore’s O keep up with the high-scoring home team at raucous Arrowhead Stadium, where rookie quarterbacks virtually never win.

Next man up: Joe Philbin. When last seen in charge of an NFL sideline, Philbin became a casualty of Miami’s bullying scandal in 2015. Now he’s Green Bay’s interim choice following the firing of Mike McCarthy. Philbin can surely relate to getting the boot while in the midst of a season. He was fired from his first head coaching job after four games of his fourth season (24-28), as his handling of an environment that allowed for Richie Incognito’s abuse of Jonathan Martin drew intense heat. He quickly landed back in Green Bay, where he coached for nine years and was O-coordinator during the 2010 campaign that ended with a Super Bowl crown. No doubt, Aaron Rodgers will be looking to reignite some sort of magic as the Falcons visit Lambeau Field.

Rookie watch: Derwin James. You might think the Chargers have two first-round picks wearing No. 33, given how James, drafted 17th overall from Florida State, pops up any and everywhere on the field. An example from back-to-back plays in Chargers territory during the second quarter of the big win at Pittsburgh: On a second down, James, who leads L.A. with 81 tackles, swept across the formation to dump James Conner in the flat for no gain, blowing up a swing-screen pass. The next play, he covered a deep seam and picked off Ben Roethlisberger’s wounded pass for Vance McDonald. Scoring threat squashed. Officially, he’s a safety, lining up at either free or strong. Or at linebacker. Or nickel back. And as his 3½ sacks indicates, he has a knack on blitzes. James’ presence on the back end of an emerging secondary is one reason why the Chargers (9-3), hosting Cincinnati on Sunday, will be one of the most complete teams in the playoffs.

CLOSELos Angeles Rams Defensive Tackle Having NFL MVP Season

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Stomach for an upset: Eagles at Cowboys. After Dallas (7-5) turned its season around and ignited its current four-game winning streak with a thumping at The Linc, the Eagles (6-6) have a shot to return the favor at JerryWorld and revive hopes to repeat as NFC East champs. A Dallas win opens a two-game lead (2 ½, including a tiebreaker) with three to play. The Cowboys are better than in Week 10, when Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 151 yards. Dak Prescott’s passing game has progressed around Amari Cooper. And the defense is no fluke. For Philly to have a chance, it could use another impact game from Zach Ertz, who blistered Dallas for 14 catches, 145 yards and two TDs in Week 10 and with 93 receptions, is in range of becoming just the fourth tight end in NFL history to post a 100-catch campaign. But it may be even more critical for Philadelphia’s D-line to dominate — just like old times. Speaking of Memory Lane, with Dallas favored by 3½ points, the Eagles are back in the position they embraced last season as an underdog. Maybe, just maybe, Lane Johnson and Chris Long can break out the dog masks.   

If the playoffs were today … The Bay Area teams would hold the top two picks in the NFL draft. The 49ers and Raiders both head into the final quarter of the season with 2-10 records, creating quite the anti-race for the stretch run. Usually, the No. 1 pick means No. 1 quarterback. It’s a given that the 49ers, hitched to a big-money deal with rehabbing Jimmy Garoppolo, won’t be looking for a quarterback. The Raiders? You never know with Jon Gruden, despite Derek Carr’s long-term deal. That Oakland has three first-round picks provides options that include drafting a QB later in the round, maybe Ohio State’s Heisman finalist Dwayne Haskins or Oregon’s Justin Herbert. And if John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan wind up with No. 1 overall, that can be parlayed into more picks obtained from some QB-needy suitor. That said, the draft is purportedly top-heavy for defensive linemen, perhaps to be headlined by Buckeyes defensive end Nick Bosa.

Did you notice? Ben Roethlisberger has averaged an NFL-high 43.1 pass attempts per game, which easily puts him on pace for a career high. At this rate, Roethlisberger would throw 690 passes (or a game shy of breaking Matthew Stafford’s NFL-record 727 passes in 2012). With 909-yard rusher James Conner out (ankle injury), chances are buff that on Sunday in Oakland, Big Ben will put up his ninth game this season with at least 40 passes — one reason why the Steelers uncharacteristically rank 27th in the NFL in rushing attempts. Despite a 28.8-point scoring mark (4th in the NFL), the imbalance is not a good omen for Pittsburgh’s chances to win big in January.

Stat’s the fact: As the face of the Cardinals’ franchise for so many years, it’s fitting that with just one catch against Detroit, Larry Fitzgerald will set an NFL record for most receptions with one team. The 15th-year vet currently shares the mark (1,281) with former 49ers icon Jerry Rice.

Follow columnist Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

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