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Coming This Season: Pep Guardiola 3.0

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Two months on, the euphoria has not yet faded. A few days ago, with the rich promise of a new season drifting into view, Manchester City released “Together: Champions Again,” an official documentary detailing the thrilling, triumphant journey that culminated in Pep Guardiola’s team lifting yet another Premier League trophy last May.

There are still drops of pleasure to be wrung from the happy memories, even as the thoughts of Manchester City’s fans start to drift to the delights to come. Saturday’s meeting with Liverpool in the Community Shield, the phony war that traditionally heralds the dawn of a new English season, offers the chance to see Erling Haaland in sky blue, a first glimpse of the player around whom the club’s future will be built.

It is strange, then, that flourishing in that valley between the twin peaks of jubilation and anticipation, has been just a hint of melancholy. Guardiola has, every couple of weeks, had to pay tribute to a departing star: first Gabriel Jesus, then Raheem Sterling, and finally Aleksandar Zinchenko.

“The nicest player I ever worked with,” Guardiola said of Jesus. “An explosion,” he said of Sterling. “An important player in the locker room,” he said of Zinchenko. The players have noticed it, too. “There has been a lot of change this year,” Kevin De Bruyne said recently. “It has been quite sad, because I had good relationships with the players who have gone.”

These are not the sorts of departures that have become familiar to City in recent years. There was sorrow, of course, when Yaya Touré and Vincent Kompany left, and when David Silva followed, and when Sergio Agüero departed. These were players who would be commemorated, soon after, in statuary outside the stadium, or players who deserved to be.

But their exits were natural, inevitable, predictable. The sun was setting on their careers; City, a club that has grown accustomed to the idea that tomorrow always offers more, could offset its sadness with the knowledge that they had given their all, that the team could only grow in their absence.

Sterling, Jesus and Zinchenko, though, are different. None of them are ready to retire. None have outlived their usefulness. They have left, instead, because they feel like they can be more useful somewhere else, and they have done so in a steady stream. The Manchester City that takes the field this season will be distinct from the one depicted lifting the Premier League trophy, wreathed in smiles, in the documentary.

That is not to say worse, of course. The truism — echoed by Haaland after he made his first appearance in preseason last weekend against Bayern Munich at Lambeau Field — that City has spent the last couple of years playing “without a striker” is not accurate, as Jesus would doubtless point out himself. But it has not had a striker of Haaland’s type, his profile, for some considerable time, and it has not had a striker of his quality since Agüero was at his peak. Haaland’s presence alone should make City more of a threat, not less.

But it does not seem too much of a stretch to suggest that City will be different. The club might have identified Marc Cucurella, the Brighton left back, as the ideal successor to Zinchenko — a fairly straight swap, given that Guardiola chiefly deployed the Ukrainian as a left back — but Sterling’s substitute is Julián Álvarez, a young Argentine striker, rather than what might be termed a wide forward.

To Guardiola, Jesus was the sort of player who could “press three defenders in 10 seconds,” and play across three positions. Haaland, it is safe to say, will be used rather differently. Likewise, Fernandinho, having chosen to spend the final years of his career in Brazil, has been replaced by Kalvin Phillips, a more direct sort of a midfield player.

Quite what impact all of this has on the way City will play is not yet clear, of course. Guardiola has been plain that he expects his new arrivals to fold into what he has built; he will not be reconstructing his masterpiece, or redefining his philosophy, to suit them.

He might have acknowledged that Haaland’s “movement and quality in the box” compels his team to “put as many balls as possible into the box,” but it is fair to say that he will not be reinventing himself as a long-ball manager, the sort who encourages his wingers to sling in crosses from all angles at a striker memorably described by the comedian Troy Hawke as a “Nordic meat shield.”

“We’re going to adapt the quality that the players have to be involved in the way we play,” Guardiola said. “We are not going to change the way we play.” That may broadly be true, but at the same time it is impossible to imagine Guardiola not finessing his approach somewhat to reflect the range of characteristics in his squad.

Haaland, certainly, will have to learn Guardiola’s ways of doing things, but it hardly seems a stretch to suggest that the manager will have to learn how to elicit the best from his forward, too. City’s press, for example, may require a slight recalibrating. The same is true for the way its attacking line rotates, and its preferred methods for building play.

The outcome, doubtless, will be what it always is with Guardiola: a team that dominates possession, scores great floods of goals, and either wins or comes very close to winning almost every competition in which it is involved. The question, instead, lingers on how it chooses to get there.

Guardiola has a somewhat checkered history with players regarded as pure No. 9s: He turned Robert Lewandowski into the finest exponent of the position on the planet, and had no little success with David Villa and Agüero, but struggled to dovetail with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Samuel Eto’o.

That he has approved the signing of Haaland — and to a lesser extent Álvarez, a player many at City suspect will prove something of a secret weapon this season — suggests Guardiola recognizes the need to fine-tune his style.

Not because of some shortcoming — as he has said, City has done “pretty well” under his aegis, after all — but because he wonders if there might be a way for it to become even more impressive, even more devastating. This has been a summer of euphoria and anticipation at Manchester City, but it has also been a summer of change. That change has been made in the belief that what emerges will be different than what came before. Different, but better, too.

England will face Germany in the final of Euro 2022 on Sunday in London, where they are already talking, yet again, about how football’s coming home. The Times will provide live coverage of the match at nytimes.com. To ensure you know what you’re talking about at your watch party, or so you can pretend to look smart if you really haven’t been paying attention, here’s some background reading from earlier in the tournament

Mark Cuban has, it seems, started channeling Helen Lovejoy. Just as he did in March, and then again in April, Cuban used an interview with Men in Blazers this week to fret and to fluster about teenagers. Not their moral and spiritual fiber so much, admittedly, just how they consume professional sports content. But still: Won’t somebody please think of the children?

Cuban’s theory is based on his realization that his 12-year-old son engages with sports only by devouring highlights on TikTok, that most transient of social networks. A few seconds of a dunk or a 3-pointer or a goal, then he moves — or is moved by the algorithm — on to whatever captures his fancy next.

This, as far as Cuban is concerned, has dire consequences for the sports that produce those highlights, based on the assumption that we are accidentally breeding an entire generation of humans without an attention span. These young people will, he believes, never develop the ability to follow a game over the course of an hour, or an hour and a half, and thus it is incumbent on the sports to adapt to the demands of their new audience.

He is not alone in this, of course. Luminaries as respected as Florentino Pérez and Andrea Agnelli have suggested more or less the same thing — though not based, presumably, on a sample consisting exclusively of a Cuban scion — and the same fear has come to permeate much of the news media, print and broadcast alike.

Now, given that we have all apparently decided that wealth is an accurate measure of wisdom, intelligence and virtue, turning billionaires into our new philosophers, deviation to this orthodoxy does not seem to be tolerated. There does, though, seem to be one apposite fact missing from this puzzle: the fact that people grow up.

Children being restless and easily distracted is not a new thing. It is not a function of the social media age. There is a reason, for example, that “Tom and Jerry” was a five-minute cartoon in which animals hit each other with mallets, rather than an hourlong slow burn filmed in the style of a Nordic noir.

It does not feel impossible that, perhaps, younger people have always struggled to pay attention to games in their entirety; that they have been inclined to dip in and out; that they have preferred, for example, to consume the relatively brief clips on “Match of the Day” or an equivalent, rather than settling in with a beer and a snack to watch a whole 90 minutes. It is just that now they can get those highlights on TikTok, rather than on linear television.

There is a strange insecurity to the sports industry. It is, at the same time, a vast and overweening production, full of strut and swagger and self-importance, and yet convinced of its own impending demise. Cuban’s son will, like everyone else, get older. And as he does so, he and the rest of his generation will learn the delights of delayed gratification, to appreciate the finer arts of their chosen sports, to realize that the highlights are a gateway, not a replacement.

As Cristiano Ronaldo contemplates his next move in the 2D chess match he is playing with Manchester United, he could do worse than to take into consideration the most heartwarming — and among the most intriguing — transfer of the summer: Luis Suárez, the Uruguayan striker, going back to where it all began.

Suárez, even at 35, had options after leaving Atlético Madrid this summer. He was linked with Aston Villa, and a reunion with his former Liverpool teammate Steven Gerrard. There were offers from Major League Soccer, where the Seattle Sounders held his discovery rights. He might have chosen to go to the Middle East, to Saudi Arabia or Qatar.

Instead, Suárez’s head was turned by a sweeping, organic campaign from fans of Nacional, the team in his homeland that he left some 16 years ago, to take his journey full circle. There were, by all accounts, some 50 million tweets left on the hashtag #SuárezANacional. The club’s fan base printed and wore tens of thousands of masks of his face at a league game last month.

On Thursday, they had their reward.

“All of the videos and messages we have received have been so moving, it really touched our hearts in this situation where we had to decide,” Suárez said after announcing his return to Montevideo. “It was impossible to turn down the chance to play for Nacional again.”

Suárez is not an uncomplicated figure, and he has not always made it easy to admire him. But it is difficult not to see the romance in his decision to turn down far more lucrative, far more ego-soothing offers in favor of something more authentic. Humans like stories, and Suárez has chosen to complete his.

Ronaldo does not appear ready to do that yet. At 37, his priority remains to play in the Champions League, to have one or two more chances to add another couple of honors to his extended résumé. Manchester United, the team that made him a star, cannot offer that, and so he does not want to be there any more.

Nor can Sporting Lisbon, Ronaldo’s equivalent of Suárez’s Nacional: Ruben Amorim’s team is in the Champions League, at least, but it is a bit of a stretch to imagine it venturing far into the knockout rounds. That has left one of the best players of all time in a curious position. He needs one of Europe’s best teams to be sufficiently badly organized to sign him, but sufficiently well run to win the Champions League. That is not a story that will have a happy ending.

Last week’s newsletter drew two distinct strands of communication. One centered on the future or otherwise of headers, with various suggestions for how they might continue to be incorporated — or not — into soccer.

“Maybe one compromise is limiting them to corners and free kicks into the box?” suggested Ajoy Vachher. “Clanging heads and hard-struck balls hitting heads would still happen, but much less frequently, and a critical part of the game would be preserved.”

Many others went for a more comprehensive solution: Michael Valot, Mary Jo Berman and Tom Kalitkowski all suggested that some sort of “lightweight headgear” might allow the game to preserve heading while minimizing long-term risk. That is thoroughly sensible, of course, but I do wonder how culturally acceptable it would be to players and to fans.

I also thought Tim Schum made a fascinating point about the relevance of the development of the ball itself. The consensus holds that, because modern balls are lighter, they pose less risk than the heavy, sodden, leather balls that players of previous generations were compelled to head as “an act of courage.”

That has come with a risk, though. “With the modern ball has emerged the ability of artisans to ‘spin’ or shape the flighted ball toward or away from goalkeepers,” Tim wrote, something that may have served to ensure crossing’s ongoing prominence in the game.

The other theme, you will be unsurprised to learn, centered on language. Thanks, first of all, to Kevin Duncliffe, for pointing out that the word “soccer” remains “alive and well” not only in the United States, but Ireland, too.

“In news media generally, soccer is the preferred term, and football is reserved for the Gaelic game,” he wrote. “In conversation, ‘football’ may refer to either sport and you have to pick it up from context. Meanwhile, here in the United States, I remain ever eager to point out that the term ‘soccer’ is neither American nor an abomination.”

And thanks to the dozen or so Italians, or Americans of Italian extraction or with Italian links, who educated me on the etymology of the word calcio. Lisa Calevi, for example: “I must remind you that calcio comes from calciare, meaning to kick.” My Italian is passable, though a little rusty, but I will confess I did not know that, and I am grateful for the correction.



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College Football Playoff predictions: Georgia vs. Ohio State, Michigan vs. TCU

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And then there were four. 

After a dramatic conference championship weekend that saw two of the nation’s top four teams suffer losses, the committee finalized one of the least controversial fields in the history of the College Football Playoff: Georgia, Michigan, TCU, and Ohio State. 

There was little drama heading into Sunday’s selections, but there’s plenty of intrigue within the matchups themselves. Can Georgia maintain its title defense against a talented and hungry Ohio State squad? And will Michigan stay undefeated against this plucky TCU squad? 

Here are the odds at BetMGM for the two semifinal matchups and our early lean on each:

Warren Brinson #97 and Tyrion Ingram-Dawkins #93 of the Georgia Bulldogs celebrate
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College Football playoff predictions and picks 

No. 1 Georgia (-6.5, 60.5) vs. No. 4 Ohio State (Dec. 31, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

When I first saw the odds for this game, I was surprised that Georgia wasn’t dealing as a touchdown favorite or bigger. Sure enough, bettors have already pushed this line to 6.5, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see this one cross the key number before kickoff later this month. 

That’s no disrespect to Ohio State, which clearly owns one of the three best rosters in the country. In fact, the argument for the underdog here is simple: These teams were seen as near-equals when the season began, and the Buckeyes lost one game all year to one of the other playoff finalists. 

Clearly, that’s an oversimplification. That loss came on the heels of a tricky win at Maryland, which came two weeks after a near-stumble at one-win Northwestern. Compare that to Georgia, which made quick work of LSU in last week’s SEC final — flashing elite offensive upside with a 50-piece to go alongside the most dominant defense in the country. 

Emeka Egbuka #2 of the Ohio State Buckeyes
Emeka Egbuka #2 of the Ohio State Buckeyes
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Yes, there’s plenty of talent on this Ohio State roster. That wasn’t enough to hold up against Michigan’s offense, which gashed this unit with four touchdowns of 69-plus yards even with superstar Blake Corum (knee) on the sidelines for most of it — a somewhat predictable result for a Buckeyes secondary that hadn’t truly been tested all year. 

I’m skeptical of that unit holding up against Stetson Bennett and this resurgent Bulldogs offense, while C.J. Stroud and Co. have their toughest test yet against this monstrous Georgia front. Kirby Smart’s team blew out Michigan in a similar spot in last year’s semifinals, and I don’t expect this one to be all that much closer. 

Pick: Georgia -6.5 (BetMGM)

Members of the Michigan Wolverines celebrate with Donovan Edwards #7 of the Michigan Wolverines
Members of the Michigan Wolverines celebrate with Donovan Edwards #7 of the Michigan Wolverines
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No. 2 Michigan (-9, 59.5) vs. No. 3 TCU (Dec. 31, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN) 

The biggest question heading into this year’s playoff selection wasn’t really whether TCU deserved to be one of the top four teams in the country. Its résumé answered that. The bigger issue at hand: are the Horned Frogs any good? 

Obviously, that’s a bit hyperbolic. This team had to be good to survive a sneakingly loaded Big 12 unscathed before losing in the conference title game to a team it had already beat earlier this season. It also ranked in the top 10 by most advanced metrics with a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback in Max Duggan. 

Did this group ever really look the part of a playoff team, though? The Horned Frogs won seven straight games by 10 or fewer points at one point, regularly falling behind before relying on late-game heroics. That came back to bite them last week, when their second big deficit of the year against Kansas State was too big to overcome. 

There was rarely a doubt for Michigan, which led the country in average scoring margin (+26.7) and won nine of its 12 games by at least 20 points. That includes the best win by any team this season: a 22-point romp over the very Ohio State team that most consider to be better than TCU, rankings aside 

Max Duggan #15 of the TCU Horned Frogs
Max Duggan #15 of the TCU Horned Frogs
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Losing Corum late in the season was a tough blow on paper, but quarterback J.J. McCarthy has come alive late in the year to round out one of the most complete teams in football. TCU deserves credit for its phenomenal season to date, but that should end in convincing fashion on the big stage. 

Pick: Michigan -9 (BetMGM)

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Fantasy football Week 14 waiver wire advice: Act quick after big injuries

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Quick hitters and waiver wire advice for a handful of notable players after Week 13 of the fantasy football season:

Hire learning

Zonovan Knight RB, Jets

A week late to this, because we thought James Robinson would get worked into a significant role. We no longer harbor that belief. We like Knight as long as Michael Carter remains sidelined.

DeeJay Dallas RB, Seahawks

Rashaad Penny and Travis Homer already were out. Then rookie starter Kenneth Walker went down with an ankle issue Sunday. If he misses time, expect Dallas to lead a two-headed committee with Tony Jones Jr.

D.J. Chark WR, Lions

The Detroit offense is rolling, and with Chark looking 100 percent again, he should provide enough production to warrant an occasional fantasy start as Amon-Ra St. Brown’s sidekick.

Greg Dulcich TE, Broncos

Led all tight ends in Week 13 targets (8) heading into Monday. With that kind of volume, he can produce even with the nadir version of Russell Wilson as his QB.

The Seahawks’ DeeJay Dallas
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Promote from within

Geno Smith QB, Seahawks

With “Seattle running back” now the most dangerous job in America, expect the Seahawks to lean more heavily on the passing game. So the Great Geno Awakening becomes even “awakener.”

Brian Robinson RB, Commanders

Washington has a bye next week, but we like the volume we’ve seen recently from Robinson. Reminds us of James Conner: Not terribly flashy, but good enough to produce if given enough opportunity.

AJ Dillon RB, Packers

Had a nice game while Aaron Jones was dealing with a shin issue. If that issue lingers past the upcoming bye week, we’re on board with starting Dillon, even against a relatively stout Rams run D.

Cam Akers RB, Rams

Akers has at various times been the assumed heir to the feature role to banished to the bench. Now, he’s back to toil with our emotions and rosters again. Gets bad run defenses next two weeks — Raiders and Packers.

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NFL power rankings for Week 14: Bengals rising with new team on top

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Any predictions of a Super Bowl 47 rematch took a big hit last weekend.

The San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens both lost their starting quarterbacks. Make that two season-ending injuries at quarterback in the top-heavy NFC for the 49ers, as free-agent-to-be Jimmy Garoppolo joins Trey Lance on the bench.

The news is potentially better for the Ravens, who consider Lamar Jackson’s availability “week to week” with a sprained knee. The Ravens’ 2021 season fell apart in December when Jackson missed five starts. The AFC — and the North Division’s hard-charging Bengals — doesn’t offer much margin for error again.

Here are The Post’s NFL power rankings for Week 14:

1. Philadelphia Eagles 11-1 (2)

A.J. Brown finished with eight catches for 119 yards and two touchdowns in his first game back in Tennessee since a blockbuster trade on draft night. Jalen Hurts keeps climbing up MVP ballots, as he threw for three touchdowns and ran for another in a 35-10 win against the Titans. The Eagles are 11-1 for the fourth time — first since 2004.

Jalen Hurts and the Eagles are back at No. 1.
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2. Buffalo Bills 9-3 (4)

Josh Allen became the first player in NFL history with three seasons of at least 25 touchdown passes and five rushing touchdowns as the Bills won in Foxborough, Mass., for the third straight time, with a 24-10 victory against the Patriots. The Bills, who had started 0-2 in the AFC East, pressured Mac Jones plenty, even without the injured Von Miller.

3. Dallas Cowboys 9-3 (5)

Who needs free agent Odell Beckham Jr.? Dak Prescott threw two touchdown passes to Michael Gallup and another to CeeDee Lamb in a 54-19 demolition of the Colts. Tony Pollard rushed for two scores. One interception helped turn a one-point lead into eight before halftime and a second essentially ended the game with less than 11 minutes remaining.

4. Minnesota Vikings 10-2 (6)

The Vikings improved to 9-0 in one-score games and completed a four-game sweep of the AFC East with a 27-22 win against the Jets. Camryn Bynum sealed the victory with an interception at the 1-yard line with 10 seconds remaining, assuring that a 20-3 third-quarter lead didn’t go to waste. Justin Jefferson scored a touchdown and set up another with a tough over-the-middle catch.

5. Cincinnati Bengals 8-4 (8)

Joe Burrow is proving to be a worthy nemesis for Patrick Mahomes. The Bengals beat the Chiefs for the third time in the 2022 calendar year, with Burrow completing 6 of 7 passes on the game-winning 53-yard touchdown drive. Ja’Marr Chase returned, but Joe Mixon did not. Samaje Perine rushed for 106 yards in Mixon’s absence.

Bengals
Tee Higgins celebrates during the Bengal’s win over the Chiefs.
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6. Kansas City Chiefs 9-3 (1)

Harrison Butker missed a potential game-tying field goal as time expired in a 27-24 loss to the Bengals. The bigger surprise was that Travis Kelce lost a fumble at the end of a 19-yard gain with the Chiefs leading by four points early in the fourth quarter. The loss allowed Buffalo to take the lead in the chase for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.

7. San Francisco 49ers 8-4 (7)

Welcome to the Brock Purdy Era. Garoppolo suffered a broken foot in a 33-17 win against the Dolphins. The last pick of the 2022 draft, Purdy didn’t look like a Mr. Irrelevant as he threw for 210 yards and two touchdowns. A dominant defense forced two interceptions that led to field goals and scored a touchdown on a fumble return.

8. Miami Dolphins 8-4 (3)

Head coach Mike McDaniels’ first game against the 49ers since spending five years there as an offensive assistant did not go well. Lip readers caught him admitting that he “f–ked up” after burning a first-half timeout. The Dolphins’ streaks of five straight wins and four games with 30-plus points were snapped despite one Tua Tagovailoa-to-Tyreek Hill touchdown bomb.

9. Baltimore Ravens 8-4 (9)

Tyler Huntley led a 16-play, 91-yard drive (aided by two defensive penalties) that he capped with a 2-yard touchdown run with 28 seconds remaining to beat the Broncos, 10-9. The defense’s 14-game streak of forcing a takeaway ended, but Roquan Smith (11 tackles) had his most-active game since he was acquired at the trade deadline.

Ravens
Lamar Jackson
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10. Tennessee Titans 7-5 (10)

Treylon Burks — drafted with the pick acquired from the Eagles for A.J. Brown — caught a touchdown pass, but Ryan Tannehill (141 passing yards and six sacks) and Derrick Henry (11 carries for 30 yards) couldn’t get anything going. In losing a second straight, the Titans’ last six possessions ended with five punts and a turnover on downs.

11. Seattle Seahawks 7-5 (12)

12. Washington Commanders 7-5-1 (11)

13.New York Giants 7-4-1 (13)

Five different players had sacks, including Azeez Ojulari’s that led to a fumble he also recovered. That takeaway set up Daniel Jones’ lone touchdown pass in a 20-20 tie against Washington, which has lost just once in its last eight games. Nearly automatic kicker Graham Gano missed a 58-yard field goal into the wind as time expired in overtime.

14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6-6 (17)

15. New England Patriots 6-6 (15)

16. New York Jets 7-5 (16)

One touchdown on six trips into the red zone and three conversions on 16 third downs weighed down all the positives in the loss to the Vikings. Garrett Wilson went off with eight catches for 162 yards, but a late fourth-and-goal throw went to Braxton Berrios and slipped through his fingers. Mike White’s 57 passes are too many for a supposedly run-based offense.

17. Los Angeles Chargers 6-6 (14)

18. Pittsburgh Steelers 5-7 (22)

19. Detroit Lions 5-7 (23)

20. Las Vegas Raiders 5-7 (25)

21. Atlanta Falcons 5-8 (18)

22. Arizona Cardinals 4-8 (21)

23. Cleveland Browns 5-7 (28)

24. Green Bay Packers 5-8 (26)

25. Indianapolis Colts 4-8-1 (20)

26. Jacksonville Jaguars 4-8 (19)

27. New Orleans Saints 4-9 (24)

28. Carolina Panthers 4-8 (27)

29. Los Angeles Rams 3-9 (29)

30. Chicago Bears 3-10 (30)

31. Denver Broncos 3-9 (31)

32. Houston Texans 1-10-1 (32)

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