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Oakland Raiders control destiny in path to (gulp) playoffs – NFL Nation


ALAMEDA, Calif. — The path to the Oakland Raiders’ return to the postseason for the first time since 2016 (and second time since 2002) is pretty straightforward.

Win, and they’re in.

“We’re in control of our own destiny,” rookie edge rusher Clelin Ferrell said. “One day at a time. One game at a time.”

Of course, that’s easier said than done. But if any of the silver-and-black-clad denizens of the Black Hole had told you back in training camp that come Dec. 1, the Raiders could be playing for first place, well, Gorilla Rilla has a bridge in Las Vegas he’d like to sell you.

But here it is. Riding a three-game win streak, the Raiders are 6-4 and just on the outside looking in at the No. 6 seed Houston Texans — who are also 6-4 but beat the Raiders on Oct. 27 in Texas — if the season ended today. But if the Raiders beat the New York Jets (3-7) this week, they’ll head to Arrowhead Stadium seven days later with first place in the AFC West on the line against the Kansas City Chiefs, who held on against the Los Angeles Chargers on Monday in Mexico City to improve to 7-4.

The Chiefs, who are on their bye this week, have the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Raiders due to their 28-10 victory on Sept. 15 in Oakland.

“It just says that we’re getting better,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said of his team’s sudden playoff contention in his second year back with the franchise. “We’re able to find ways to win. There’s an old saying around here: Just win, baby. We’ve fought our hearts out to put ourselves in a 6-4 position. That doesn’t mean anything. We’ve got a lot of respect for the Jets and a lot of work to do.”

Gruden referenced Evansville’s upset of No. 1 Kentucky in college basketball this past week in insisting that the Raiders would not overlook the winless Bengals prior to their harder-than-expected 17-10 win over Cincinnati.

Gruden does have college hoops experience, having been a ball boy for Bobby Knight at Indiana in his youth. So you can imagine the maxims Gruden will employ in the final month of the season. Besides the Chiefs, the Raiders do not face a team that currently has a winning record.

They have the Tennessee Titans (5-5) at home on Dec. 8, the Jacksonville Jaguars (4-6) on Dec. 15 in what should be the final game in Oakland, at the Chargers (4-7) on Dec. 22 and at the Denver Broncos (3-7) on Dec. 29. The Raiders defeated the Chargers and Broncos in Oakland.

As it stands now, the New England Patriots (9-1) would be the top seed, followed by the Baltimore Ravens (8-2). The Indianapolis Colts (6-4) would be the No. 3 seed as the AFC South champs and would play host to the No. 6 Texans (6-4) in the wild-card round. The No. 4 Chiefs (6-4) would be the AFC West champs and would host the No. 5 Buffalo Bills (7-3).

All of that means that if Oakland loses at Kansas City (Raiders quarterback Derek Carr is 0-5 at Arrowhead, after all), the Raiders will need some help. But it is too soon to start thinking of such things — things such as a “trap game” at the Jets.



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BYU extends coach Kalani Sitake through 2023 season


BYU coach Kalani Sitake received a contract extension through the 2023 season, the school announced Monday.

Sitake, who is 26-23 in four seasons at his alma mater, had been under contract through 2020. Athletic director Tom Holmoe indicated an extension was coming in the locker room after Saturday’s win over Idaho State, which made BYU bowl-eligible.

“This is your coach, right?” Holmoe told the team in a video posted on social media. “He’s my coach, and he’s our coach.”

Holmoe then unzipped his jacket to show an #EXTENDKALANI T-shirt underneath. Several BYU players had worn the shirts and lobbied for Sitake to remain at BYU. The Cougars beat Tennessee and USC early this season but slipped to 2-4 before winning four straight, including an upset of previously undefeated Boise State.

“We believe in him and the direction of the program,” Holmoe said in a prepared statement Monday. “Together we are committed to creating a bright future for BYU football.”

After the Idaho State win, BYU accepted an invitation to the SoFi Hawaii Bowl, to be played Dec. 24 against a team from the American Athletic Conference or the Mountain West. Sitake, 44, is 2-0 in bowl games at BYU, which next plays Saturday at Massachusetts.



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Chiefs’ defense preserves slim lead over Raiders in AFC West – NFL Nation


MEXICO CITY — The Kansas City Chiefs can win an important game even when Patrick Mahomes isn’t at his best. Mahomes had the lowest passing yardage total in a first half in his career (63 yards) on Monday against the Los Angeles Chargers, and even though he came alive in the second half, the biggest plays of a 24-17 win were provided by the defense.

The Chiefs’ two big-money offseason additions, end Frank Clark and safety Tyrann Mathieu, each recorded big plays. Clark had five quarterback pressures, including one that led to an interception. Mathieu had an interception in the first half, and his long return set up his struggling offense in great position to score an easy touchdown.

Mahomes finished with 182 passing yards, the fewest he has had in a game he has finished. He did, however, have a career-high 59 rushing yards.

The Chiefs’ defense intercepted Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers four times, which matched his career worst.

Describe the game in two words: Still first. The victory allowed the Chiefs to move to 7-4 and maintain their half-game lead over the Oakland Raiders in the AFC West. After a bye next weekend, the Chiefs will face the Raiders in Week 13 at Arrowhead Stadium.

Promising/troubling trend: The Chiefs continue to have trouble covering running backs in the passing game. Chargers backs had 129 receiving yards, 108 of them from Austin Ekeler.

Pivotal play: Deon Yelder lost a third-quarter fumble that was returned by the Chargers to the Chiefs’ 12. But the play was wiped out on an illegal use of hands penalty by the Chargers’ Melvin Ingram, and the Chiefs finished the drive with a touchdown that allowed them to extend their lead to 17-9.

Silver lining: Tyreek Hill left the game in the first half with a hamstring injury, and his absence appeared to throw Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense out of sorts for the rest of the first half. The Chiefs eventually survived without him, and now he gets a bye week to heal before the important meeting with the Raiders in two weeks.



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Capital One Fan Vote — Will Bama, Georgia, Oklahoma or Oregon make the playoff?


With two weeks to go in the regular season, there are three remaining undefeated teams: LSU, Ohio State and Clemson. If they win out, they’re obviously making the College Football Playoff.

Which team is most likely to join them? Can Alabama, even without Tua Tagovailoa, make a run? Can Georgia get by LSU in the SEC title game to force its way in? Then there’s Oklahoma and Oregon as potential 1-loss conference champions.

So who is the most likely of those teams to make the playoff? Let us know in the Capital One Fan Vote.





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Deebo Samuel coming into his own at right time for 49ers’ offense – NFL Nation


SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As star tight end George Kittle works his way back from knee and ankle injuries and primary wideout Emmanuel Sanders battles through a rib cartilage ailment, the San Francisco 49ers have been left to wonder who will step up to fill the void for the offense.

The answer has come in the form of a 6-foot, 215-pound battering ram of a rookie with a moniker that matches his relentless approach to the game: wide receiver Deebo Samuel.

“Deebo Samuel is fearless,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “He’ll run through any catch. You get some receivers running across the middle, and they’re looking for who is going to hit them. Deebo is looking for who he’s gonna hit. That’s a much different mentality from most people. It’s almost like you expect him to break the tackle when he catches the football. And it takes a tremendous amount of trust in your quarterback, a tremendous amount of trust in your abilities to be able to play like that.

“Because some of the plays they’re drawing up is him running into traffic. He’s running into a safety who is breaking, and it could be a huge hit. And he’s not wincing, he’s not crunching up, he’s running through it, catching the ball and keeping going. That’s a fearlessness that can’t be coached, and it can’t be taught. You either have it, or you don’t.”

The fact that Samuel has it has made him one of the 49ers’ most important players heading into the season’s final six weeks and, without question, their biggest offensive weapon the past two.

In Sunday’s win against Arizona, Samuel was again at the top of his game, posting eight catches for 134 yards. The most spectacular catch was an acrobatic 26-yarder down the sideline on third-and-9 late in the third quarter that left San Francisco fans raucously chanting “DEE-BO, DEE-BO, DEE-BO” even as he gingerly walked to the sideline after landing awkwardly on his shoulder.

“You catch the ball with your eyes and your hands,” Samuel said. “Without that, you wouldn’t be able to track the ball, so I never lost focus of the ball and just went and made a play.”

The injury didn’t keep Samuel out for long, as he returned to the game and delivered two more catches for 18 yards and a first down on the game-winning drive on his way to joining elite company.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Samuel’s 134 receiving yards are the third-most by a 49ers rookie in a game, trailing tallies by Jerry Rice (241 yards in 1985) and Dave Parks (146 in 1964). Samuel is the second Niners rookie to have consecutive 100-yard receiving games, joining Parks, and he is the first Niner of any experience level to do that since Marquise Goodwin in 2017.

“Deebo has been phenomenal,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “He’s a guy that when the offense is maybe not going the way we want it to, he so many times has been the spark for us. And that’s pretty awesome for a rookie to be able to step into that position and have that kind of pressure and still make plays. I feel like every time he touches the ball, he gets more confident, and he’s throwing guys to the ground and doing his thing.”



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LB Michael Divinity returns to LSU, practices with team


BATON ROUGE, La. — LSU linebacker Michael Divinity returned to practice on Monday, two weeks after leaving the team for what coach Ed Orgeron described at the time as personal reasons.

Divinity’s status on the team is unclear, however. Orgeron isn’t scheduled to address the media until Wednesday.

Divinity’s return comes on the heels of an LSU win over Ole Miss in which the defense gave up some 600 yards of offense, including more than 200 yards and four touchdowns from quarterback John Rhys Plumlee.

At the time Divinity left the team, before the Alabama game, he had 23 tackles in eight games and led the team with three sacks.

LSU hosts Arkansas on Saturday and will close out the regular season in two weeks against Texas A&M.



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Texans built to win now, which makes Baltimore blowout troubling – NFL Nation


BALTIMORE — The Houston Texans went all-in in the offseason, making dramatic moves to boost their near-term chances at the expense of future draft picks. They made trades and signings to win this season because they believed their roster had enough talent and quarterback Deshaun Watson gives them a chance to beat any opponent.

The Texans traded two first-round picks and a second-rounder to protect Watson’s blind side with Laremy Tunsil, and they added wide receiver Kenny Stills. The Texans traded a third-round pick for running back Duke Johnson and traded away Jadeveon Clowney for a third-round pick and two players. Houston then traded that third-round pick to the Raiders for cornerback Gareon Conley.

Although still favored to make the playoffs, the Texans aren’t showing signs that they would be much of a threat, once there, to the teams that are pulling away from the pack in the AFC: the Patriots (9-1) and the Ravens (8-2).

Coming into the season, the Texans’ weaknesses were on the offensive line and in the secondary.

The secondary started Sunday ranked 29th in the NFL in pass defense, allowing an average of 277.3 passing yards per game. On Sunday, the Texans allowed quarterback Lamar Jackson to throw for 222 yards and four touchdowns.

The line showed improvement in the middle of the season — entering Sunday, Watson had been sacked seven times in five games — despite having to play with moving pieces due to injuries. But on Sunday, Watson and the Texans reverted to the poor play they showed early in the season in a loss to the Panthers and a close win over the Jaguars.

Against the Ravens, who entered the game with 23 sacks this season (tied for 23rd in the NFL), Watson was sacked seven times and took 10 hits. He completed 18 of 29 passes for 169 yards and an interception, and Houston finished with 232 net yards of offense.

The Texans’ defense, which allowed 41 points on Sunday and was carved up by the Colts earlier this season, is chock-full of players on one-year deals or expiring contracts. Cornerbacks Bradley Roby and Johnathan Joseph will be free agents after the season. Nose tackle D.J. Reader is in the last year of his rookie deal. Outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, the only proven pass-rusher the Texans have since J.J. Watt tore his pectoral muscle in Week 8, will be a free agent after this season.

The Texans will likely give Watson and Tunsil big contract extensions this offseason, and star receiver DeAndre Hopkins is under contract through 2022, so nobody is suggesting that this is the end of the window in Houston. But the Texans clearly have a lot of work to do to make this big bet pay off, and with fewer draft picks next spring, it will be tougher for the team to replenish talent.

Even if the Texans play better than they did against the Ravens on Sunday, they have a tough stretch coming up. Houston hosts Indianapolis on Thursday, then New England in Week 13. The Texans and Colts both enter the game at 6-4, but Indianapolis holds the tiebreaker after winning the teams’ first meeting of the season.

“It’s a must-win Thursday,” Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins said. “Everybody knows that. We have to move forward. What we want is still ahead of us.”

That is absolutely the case: The Texans could look back at the end of their season and point to the Ravens loss as the turning point before they went on a run. But for a franchise that has never been to an AFC Championship Game, Sunday’s blowout loss showed just how far behind the Texans remain in comparison to the best teams in the AFC.



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Georgia coach Kirby Smart apologizes for using expletive after beating Auburn


ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia coach Kirby Smart has apologized for using an expletive after his team’s victory over Auburn, which sent the No. 4 Bulldogs to the Southeastern Conference championship game for the third year in a row.

Smart began his regularly scheduled news conference Monday by saying he was disappointed in himself for his choice of words in the wake of a 21-14 victory over the Tigers.

The comment came when Smart was asked by a reporter what he told his players after they clinched another SEC East title. He replied, “I told them, ‘How ’bout them (expletive) Dogs!'”

Smart said the comment was “not indicative of what I stand for.” He said you know you have messed up when you get home after a big win to find ‘your wife is upset about something you said.'”



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Broncos should expect more offenses to pick up the pace – NFL Nation


MINNEAPOLIS — The Denver Broncos had more than enough blame to go around Sunday after they clumsily turned a 20-0 halftime lead into a somewhat historic 27-23 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

But stepping front and center to accept any and all pointed fingers was the team’s defense, a unit that should expect to see more of the up-tempo pace the Vikings showed in the second half.

“Any time you have a 20-point lead, you should win the game,” defensive end Shelby Harris said. “That’s on the defense. … I’m not in the business of excuses. I’m in the business of trying to make it right. It sucks. It stings.”

“You’re not going to win games when you give up a 20-point lead, and defensively, you know, that’s just unacceptable,” safety Justin Simmons said.

It was the third time in franchise history that the Broncos lost a game after they had a 20-point lead at halftime; in 2013 against the New England Patriots and 1988 against the Raiders were the others. The Broncos came into Sunday’s game fourth in the league against the pass, fourth in total defense and sixth in scoring defense. Despite their 3-7 record, they have made life difficult for plenty of quarterbacks and playcallers this season.

But the Vikings, with former Broncos coach Gary Kubiak on one of the headsets, made two significant moves after halftime: They went no-huddle, and they went after cornerbacks Davontae Harris and Duke Dawson Jr.

“You hesitate to do it because you also know that they have Von Miller and a really good pass rush, and you don’t want to get into a dropback game with some of the best pass-rushers to ever play,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said of the Vikings’ two-minute offense. “But it worked, and I don’t know if that’s because you run play after play after play without huddling and they start to get a little winded and now they don’t have the same get-off as they do in the first half when you’re huddling every play. I’m not sure.”

It worked, even if the Broncos had five sacks. With three road games over the next four weeks, the Broncos can expect to face more hurry-up offenses with opponents not needing to worry about crowd noise.

At halftime, the Vikings had just 47 yards of offense — that included 14 rushing yards by a team that entered the game third in rushing — had punted five times and had lost two fumbles. Right from the start in the second half, however, the Vikings played with pace. They scored four touchdowns in four possessions, including an 18-play, 75-yard affair that bridged the third and fourth quarters and included a conversion on third-and-14.

“We had our chances,” Broncos coach Vic Fangio said. “They completed that one [third-and-14] … and that shouldn’t have happened. That allowed that drive to go. We just couldn’t make a play to get off the field there in the second half. Their passing game was better than our pass defense.”

Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs did not have a catch in the first half, with cornerback Chris Harris Jr. shadowing him much of the time, but Diggs finished with five catches for 121 yards to go with a 54-yard touchdown.

The touchdown came with Harris in pursuit, but Fangio said Harris was supposed to have help from a safety on the play. Diggs also had a 44-yard catch on the Vikings’ first scoring drive of the game, when Cousins saw Davontae Harris matched up on him. Two plays later, Cousins threw a 10-yard scoring pass to Irv Smith Jr. with Davonte Harris again in coverage.

The Broncos had another coverage miscue later in the fourth quarter on the touchdown that gave the Vikings their first lead. Cousins lofted the ball over Dawson to get it to Kyle Rudolph running free with no defenders behind Dawson.

“They just tried to hurry us up and scramble us. We got a little discombobulated,” Harris said. “And communication lapsed.”

“We just didn’t quite get it done,” Fangio said. “We haven’t gotten over the top well enough yet. … This game we didn’t get it done. We’ll eventually get it done, you know. These guys are good guys, they’re working their butts off, they enjoy coming to work, they like playing. We’ll just keep grinding, and we’ll keep pounding, and eventually we’ll get through.”



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How Tua Tagovailoa changed Alabama football forever


The first time the college football world was introduced to Tua Tagovailoa, he was coming off the bench during the second half of the 2018 national championship game in Atlanta. Out went a struggling Jalen Hurts, who had gone 26-2 as a starter and had once been named SEC Offensive Player of the Year, and in came this lefty from Hawaii, this true freshman no one had ever heard of, who showed no signs of being overwhelmed by the moment as he methodically led Alabama back against Georgia.

In the first possession of overtime, down three, he took a sack and still wasn’t rattled. Instead, facing second-and-26, he dropped back and found DeVonta Smith racing down the sideline for the winning touchdown, and all hell broke loose. Tagovailoa and his teammates sprinted around the field that night in a state of joy, almost unsure of what to do with themselves after such an improbable, historic comeback. Even the usually reserved Nick Saban let himself get swept up in the moment, the coach smiling from ear to ear as he lifted his arms in celebration.

There was something about the way Alabama won that felt new and transformative. It was as if the DNA of a dynasty that had long thrived on defense and careful execution on offense had been recoded in a single night by a quarterback whose talents we were only beginning to understand.

Which is what made the scene on Saturday afternoon at Mississippi State so jarring. Alabama’s 38-7 win was an afterthought. There was no celebration as many of those same teammates from the 2018 title game walked off the field at Davis Wade Stadium with their heads hung low, processing what they’d seen hours earlier. Tagovailoa, their star quarterback and leader, was gone after being taken by helicopter to St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Birmingham. He was hurt late in the first half on a seemingly innocent play, dislocating his right hip, an injury that would end his season and almost certainly his historic career at Alabama.

Najee Harris, who had scored a career-high four touchdowns in the game, was borderline despondent. “I’m just hurt,” he told reporters. Saban spoke about the injury in grave terms, even though a definitive diagnosis wasn’t clear at the time. He called what happened a “freak thing.” If he could do it over again, knowing how it would end, he said he would not have put Tagovailoa back in the game, with Alabama ahead by four touchdowns and halftime moments away. But Tagovailoa said he wanted one more series, and Saban said OK.

And now? Now Saban was using words no coach ever wants to use. “Godspeed to him and his entire family and our thoughts and prayers are with them,” he said. “[I] hope this is not so serious it has any long-term effect on his future as a player.”

If this is indeed the end of Tagovailoa’s time at Alabama, if he opts to enter the NFL draft, it’s a shame he went out on such unfortunate terms. Seeing him writhing in pain on the field, his face bloodied, unable to walk off under his own power, was the antithesis of the player we have seen perform near-superhuman acts for the past two-plus seasons.

You could feel something special building after that coming-out party in Atlanta. Tagovailoa beat out Hurts for the starting job and proved he deserved the hype. Coaches marveled at his presence in the pocket; one staffer said it was almost as if he had eyes in the back of his head. Defenders took stock of his poise and how his eyes scanned the field so quickly; they could only shake their heads when he fit passes into windows that didn’t seem to exist. He was an artist, an enigma. Former Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin got flashbacks of recruiting him in high school. “It’s just a magical aura and accuracy with the ball,” he said.

Remember Tagovailoa’s first touchdown pass as a starter in the season opener against Louisville? He was trapped by the defense, spun around wildly and, without breaking stride, flung the ball in the general direction of … nobody? But then Jerry Jeudy appeared, six points went on the scoreboard and no one ever questioned him again.

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Tua Tagovailoa gets up slowly after throwing an 11-yard touchdown to Jerry Jeudy.

The sport hadn’t seen anything like Tagovailoa in an Alabama uniform before. He almost single-handedly changed the offense, dragging it into the 21st century with his ability to spread the ball all over the field. Instead of the I-formation, he threw to four and five receivers. Instead of grinding down the clock, Tagovailoa & Co. were lighting up the scoreboard in seconds.

His feel for the game was on another level. Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said he was the kind of quarterback who could beat you with his “legs, feet [and] mind.” Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst Steve Young recently pointed to Tagovailoa as an example of where intuition — “the three-dimensional chess in your head” — and physical ability collide. “Those rarely come together,” he said.

If not for a sprained ankle he suffered during last season’s SEC championship game, Tagovailoa might have won the Heisman Trophy instead of finishing as the runner-up to Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray. But then — just when you thought he was falling back to Earth — he did something magical again: He had surgery and returned just four weeks later, throwing four touchdowns in an Orange Bowl win against the Sooners.

Whatever humbling he experienced against Clemson in the 44-16 title game loss weeks later didn’t derail him. Tagovailoa came back this season more determined and more focused than ever. He suffered another high ankle sprain — this time to his right ankle — had the same surgery and returned in three weeks instead of four, tossing four more touchdowns in a shootout loss against LSU he might have won if there were five more minutes left to play. Saban called him a “warrior” for that performance, and in sports terms, who would argue otherwise? Before the hip injury against Mississippi State, Tagovailoa had thrown 31 touchdowns and only three interceptions all season.

If Tagovailoa’s time in college is over, take a minute to marvel at his passing numbers to date: 7,442 yards, 87 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in essentially two full seasons as a starter. He’s been responsible for more total touchdowns (96) than anyone else in school history, and he could hang it up right now with a legacy as one of the most entertaining, compelling, accomplished quarterbacks to play college football.

“He’s one of the best competitors, one of the best young people in college football,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “… He’s the epitome of a winner.”

And it’s those same admirable qualities — that warrior mentality, that drive to win at all costs — that might have made Tagovailoa more vulnerable on the football field. He had an unflinching belief that he could make something out of nothing, and the numbers backed it up. He was so successful at extending plays and eluding the oncoming rush — his 20 passing touchdowns under pressure are the most of any quarterback since 2018 — that he had no reason to stop trying.

Such was the case after he sprained his ankle the first time as a sophomore. This season it happened all over again, when he tried to escape the Tennessee defense, to buy a little bit more time, and instead was yanked down to the turf, where his ankle moved in ways it wasn’t supposed to. Then finally, on Saturday, he again refused to let the play die and paid the price. He rolled to his left and kept searching and searching for an open man until he knew he was caught; he threw the ball away just as two defenders fell on top of him, causing him to land awkwardly on his right leg. This time, Tagovailoa couldn’t get up; he couldn’t have doctors stitch him up and keep on going.

Monday, he’ll have hip surgery in Houston. We won’t know the full extent of his injury and path to recovery for some time.

For now, though, Alabama will have to move on without him, unsure of what the future holds. But it can do so knowing that whatever happens next, there’s no doubting his impact on the program, which began in thrilling fashion and somehow kept delivering moments that took your breath away.



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