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Burke Report: Relocation’s reminder? Sports are more about cash than fans

Relocation brings us the brutal reminder that sports, as glorious as they can be, are more about business than they are about the fans. Plus, we take a deep dive into this weekend's divisional round matchups. 

The moment when the Tigers traded Matt Nokes to the Yankees, which occurred when I was still in grade school, is the first time I can remember feeling like sports let me down. Nokes was a backup catcher at the time and not long afterward, the Tigers picked up Mickey Tettleton, a playground legend because of his recognizable stance. So, yeah, the deal probably made sense.

But I didn’t care. Nokes was one of my favorite players, in no small part because I once caught a foul ball off his bat. (By “caught,” I mean the adults in front of me tried to catch it, deflected it onto my seat and I sat on it so no one could grab it.)

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The personal misery caused by that trade is nothing compared to losing one’s franchise to another city, I’m sure, but it did introduce the syllabus on a disheartening lesson: We care about our teams more than our teams care about us. Or, at least, the emotional investment fans make is disproportionate to the consideration they’re given.

There are outliers, as always—owners wholly committed to bringing their fans a winner, players who agree to the so-called “hometown discount” to stay loyal to one franchise.

And then there are those wrecking the curve in the other direction, like Rams owner Stan Kroenke.

On his way out of town to Los Angeles, Kroenke asked for the NFL’s blessing by, among other things, claiming that St. Louis simply wasn’t a financially viable option for his team or the league. The city, he claimed in his proposal for “lags, and will continue to lag, far behind in the economic drivers that are necessary for sustained success of an NFL franchise.”

This is the same city, mind you, that reportedly could have to cover the Edward Jones Dome’s loss of revenue caused by the Rams’ move. It’s also the same area from which Kroenke demanded money for a new stadium—the city’s pitch to the league in December included $150 million from the city and another $160 million in fan seat licensing.

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There is hypocritical. Then there is a billionaire owner in a league worth lord knows how much at this point threatening to move his team unless the taxpayers fork over their dough ... and then moving the team anyway once they agree.

This is nothing new, unfortunately. Seemingly since the moment the Rams and Raiders left 20 years ago, Los Angeles has been available as an ace in the hole for any owner looking to bully his or her way into a new stadium. “Well, hey, if y’all won't build it, Los Angeles will.” The same approach has led to results in other leagues, too, even when relocation wasn't all that realistic of an outcome.

Hell, Alameda County and the city of Oakland are still trying to figure out how to pay off $100 million in debt caused by the Coliseum upgrades that brought the Raiders out of Los Angeles in the first place. By the time that bill is cleared, the Raiders likely will call another city home.

Let’s take a moment here to remind everyone that until just this April, the NFL held non-profit status and thus was tax-exempt. Non-profit. The NFL.

The league wanted so desperately to be back in Los Angeles because the mere presence of a team there means more money from a massive media market. Does it matter if any fans there embrace the Chargers? If the teams are all that competitive? That the St. Louis and San Diego diehards had their hearts ripped out?

Let's be honest, you know the answers there. Win at all costs? Nah. Win at appropriate costs, maybe. Win and turn a profit? That’s the ideal.

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We are free to hope that this is the last time such a scenario unfolds—that no more professional sports teams will feel the need to pack up and ship out. History tells us it most certainly will not be, and that few franchises really are safe from the eventual possibility.

Don’t read this as a missive urging you to throw in the towel, to pull the ol’ “break up with you before you break up with me” trick on any teams or leagues. Sports are remarkable and often well worth the time, whether as an escape or a passionate commitment. Sports are also a business, with the same end games as any other corporation out there. 

That reality has been hammered home for me on an unending loop ever since Matt Nokes slipped on Yankee pinstripes. Stan Kroenke’s power play, and the entire circus surrounding the Rams, Raiders and Chargers served as another reminder, this time for everyone.

Four-Man Front

Here are four players I’ll be keeping a close watch on this week…

1. Chris Conley, WR, ChiefsThe Chiefs are crossing their fingers that Jeremy Maclin can go full speed Saturday. If not, offensive coordinator (and newly-named Eagles head coach!) Doug Pederson confirmed during a press conference Wednesday that the Chiefs will “be leaning on” Conley to pick up the slack. He played 44 snaps in last week's blowout win over Houston, his highest total since Week 7.

His only target from QB Alex Smith went for a nine-yard touchdown.

“He’s got some valuable experience,” said Pederson of Conley. “And we’ve moved him around in certain packages during the week, so he’s comfortable that way. I think it is better sometimes to just go ... go play. You’re not worried about everything that’s out there, you’re kind of focused in on your job, and I think sometimes it can help and benefit a player that way.”

Still, replacing Maclin might be impossible, should it come to that. It’s the type of setback that threatens to derail an offense entirely, and it’s one that Pittsburgh also might face with Antonio Brown hurt.

Here’s the thing, though: Conley can be absolute lightning. He ran a 4.35 40-yard dash at the combine, flying past the 4.48 Maclin once posted. The Chiefs just haven’t used him in such a manner this season. This is not necessarily an offense built to take the top off a defense often anyway, but Maclin has been the main downfield threat for QB Alex Smith. Should he be limited or out of the lineup, Conley could see a couple shots at a game-changing play.

2. Kareem Martin, OLB, Cardinals: Sometime last weekend, Arizona OLB Alex Okafor suffered a season-ending toe injury—it happened away from the field, hence his spot on the non-football injury list. The setback left his team scrambling a bit ahead of its divisional round showdown with Green Bay.

The Cardinals just signed veteran Jason Babin off the street to take the open roster spot. And stepping into Okafor’s vacant starting gig will be Martin, who had to start for an injured Markus Golden in Week 17. Whew ... got all that?

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Golden is on track to play Saturday night, but Martin will have to stick in the starting lineup nonetheless. While Dwight Freeney delivered 8.0 sacks during the regular season (three coming in the Cardinals’ earlier dismantling of Green Bay), he has yet to play even 30 snaps in a single game, instead proving his worth as a rotational pass-rusher. Presumably, Babin will serve the same function, if he cracks the lineup at all.

So it will be on Martin and Golden to keep the edges under wraps on early downs, or to get after Aaron Rodgers whenever Freeney/Babin are sitting. This counts as a massive increase in responsibility for Martin, after he finished the year with just nine tackles (four vs. Green Bay).

Can the Packers take advantage of Okafor’s absence to stay in favorable down-and-distance spots?

3. Shaq Thompson, LB, PanthersVersatility was Thompson’s best selling point ahead of the 2015 draft and among the main reasons Carolina nabbed him at No. 25 overall. And it was on full display during the Panthers’ win over Seattle back in October. Thompson recorded a key special-teams tackle of dangerous return man Tyler Lockett (and injured himself in the process, subsequently missing two games), he forced a holding call on Marshawn Lynch when he blitzed Russell Wilson, he played in coverage, etc.

He could be an instrumental piece in the Seahawks-Panthers playoff rematch, too. Thompson’s unique skill set makes him an ideal weapon to counter Seattle’s offense, paced by the dynamic Russell Wilson. That's exactly what the front office had in mind at last May’s draft.

“When we’re doing the draft, we do look for answers to teams that you play,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said this week. “And Seattle was a team that we most certainly were trying to find an answer for. A lot of it has to do with their quarterback ... a lot of it has to do with how their offense is styled. You bring [Thompson] in like that for his athleticism and ability to make plays, and this is one of those games that you do hope he plays well.”

Wilson rushed for 53 yards on eight attempts in the October loss to Carolina, behind a banged-up and reconfigured offensive line. He was limited to 21 yards on five carries by Minnesota last week—the Seattle game plan failed to provide him many opportunities.

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Carolina’s speed throughout its front seven gives its defense a shot to limit how effective Wilson can be with his legs. Thompson is the X-factor. The Panthers figure to utilize him in a variety of ways, possibly including as a spy on Wilson. How well the rookie responds in his first post-season game will loom large.

4. Chris Harris, CB, Broncos: “It was the best versus the best, and he won,” Harris said following a Week 15 matchup that pitted him against Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown. The Steelers rallied for a win, 34–27, with Brown catching 16 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns in one of the 2015 season's signature performances.

Brown remains a question mark for Sunday’s divisional-round clash—he suffered a concussion vs. Cincinnati last weekend and has yet to begin practicing again. Should he play, odds are Harris would have a shot at redemption.

Of course, Harris wasn't alone in enduring a miserable trip to Heinz Field. While 12 of Brown's 16 receptions came with Harris in coverage, per Pro Football Focus, Aqib Talib also allowed nine Martavis Bryant catches and Bradley Roby was targeted heavily by multiple Pittsburgh pass-catchers.

Should Brown not suit up Sunday, Harris could mix and match his assignments, with the taller Talib still responsible for Bryant. Markus Wheaton, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates all would see increased action in Brown's stead.

Let’s hope for now, though, that we all get to see Brown-vs.-Harris. The Broncos’ star defensive back has to be itching for another shot.

Breaking It Down

An even deeper dive into the divisional round matchups …

Kansas City at New England (4:35 p.m. ET, CBS)

Preparing to face the Patriots’ offense is a bit like stockpiling a doomsday bunker—you just collect everything you think you’ll need and hope some of it comes in handy should the worst occur.

Bill Belichick has proven repeatedly that he is a brilliant and creative week-to-week game planner. So while this game sets up in a lot of ways as one where Belichick, somewhat limited at running back and facing Kansas City’s ferocious pass rush, dials up an endless stream of quick passes, who knows what he may have up his sleeve.

If the Patriots are hoping to establish the run, they'll have to do so against a top-10 rush defense. They’ll also have to figure out how to split carries between Brandon Bolden, Steven Jackson and James White, part of an ongoing attempt to replace both LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis. Of note there: The Chiefs allowed fewer yards receiving by running backs (492) than any team in the league this season.

If the Patriots try to throw a curve ball by leaning on the deep ball, they will need their offensive line to hold up better than it has at times this year and their receivers to come clear of the Chiefs’ aggressive coverage outside. The latter plays into the short-and-quick passing game theory: one way to counter press coverage is by utilizing those pick/rub routes the Patriots so favor.

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“They force teams, whoever they played down the stretch, all of them into making a lot of bad plays,” Tom Bradysaid on WEEI this week. “They’ve got a good rush, they’ve got a good front, they just force the offense into making a lot of mistakes.”

Brady should have his top receiving target Julian Edelman back at his disposal this week, as well as offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer. That returning duo gives the Patriots a better chance to solve Kansas City’s terrific defense. Good luck pinning down exactly how Belichick plans to do it, though.

Green Bay at Arizona (8:15 p.m. ET, NBC)

Outside of the obvious—that the Packers must be far more effective stymieing the Cardinals’ pass rush—is anything worthwhile to take from Arizona’s 38–8 Week 15 rout over Green Bay? Probably not. Even the stats from that game are misleading because of how lopsided the score became.

To wit: Eddie Lacy averaged 5.0 yards per carry on 12 attempts, which in theory stands out as a silver lining ahead of this Saturday. The reality, though, is that Lacy gained 37 of his 60 yards after the Packers already trailed by 30; in the first half, he averaged 2.3 yards per attempt.

So, throw that out. And probably ignore the Packers’ success on the ground vs. Washington's middling run defense, too.

What can be pulled from both the Week 15 Packers-Cardinals matchup and last Sunday’s Green Bay win is that establishing Lacy is a key focus for the NFC North runners-up. When Lacy has had success, the Packers have been more effective all around—they were 6–2 during the regular season when he averaged 4.0 yards per carry or better.

It’s a similar story on the other sideline. In the Cardinals’ Week 17 loss to Seattle, Arizona managed all of 27 yards on the ground. It failed to hit the century mark running the ball five times this season, resulting in two losses and three nail-biting wins (Cincinnati, Minnesota, San Francisco).

The Saturday night showdown will feature a bevy of hype surrounding the quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers and Carson Palmer. But if you want to figure out which team’s game plan is actually working well, follow the run games. 

Seattle at Carolina (1:05 p.m., ET, FOX) 

Flight to Minnesota, game in minus-20 wind chills, a week of preparation and then a cross-country trip to Carolina. Exhausting, right? Maybe even to the point of leaving Seattle on fumes ahead of its second playoff outing?

Or, apparently not ...

“We really came out very strong, and I think playing in the cold, it doesn’t wear you down as much,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said this week, via the Seattle Times. “Maybe, you might think emotionally or something, but we’re fine about that. Physically, we feel like we’re very fortunate to come to this week. I think it has to do with the weather, the demands physically [are] different than wearing you out, playing in the hot temperatures, in that kind of stuff.”

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Carroll better hope he is right, because the Seahawks and Panthers have taken to high-intensity slugfests when they have met in recent seasons. It's not hard to see why: these rosters are very reminiscent of one another—a mobile QB, strong run games, underrated receivers, athletic front sevens, a superstar cornerback. Not quite mirror images, perhaps, but close.

The tight ends went at it last time these teams met, which turned into a thrilling 27–23 Carolina win in Week 7. Greg Olsen shredded the Seahawks' defense, a more common occurrence from the TE spot than conventional wisdom might say. He posted 131 yards and the game-winning touchdown. That game also was Jimmy Graham’s breakout as a Seahawk: eight catches, 140 yards.

Obviously, Graham is unavailable due to his season-ending injury. Luke Willson and Cooper Helmet are dangerous receiving threats, but the Panthers should have an edge at there. It may not be much, but any little difference stands out when teams this closely matched get together.

Pittsburgh at Denver (4:40 p.m., ET, CBS) 

Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson, the Broncos’ main running backs, combined for 49 receptions this season. They combined for just one catch (a six-yarder form Anderson) in a 34–27 loss to Pittsburgh on Dec. 20.

Hillman and Anderson weren’t needed in the passing game early, as Brock Osweiler tossed three first-half TDs and ran for a fourth. And they were not part of Osweiler’s focus late, after Pittsburgh rallied to tie and eventually win the game after trailing by as much as 17.

Why mention all this? Well, because the Steelers essentially invited Cincinnati’s AJ McCarron to throw the ball to his safety valves last weekend, and McCarron often declined. Jeremy Hill caught three balls for 27 yards; Gio Bernard two for two. Pittsburgh’s defensive approach for large chunks of the wild-card game was to show blitzes with the linebacking corps, then fire those LBs back in coverage help against Cincinnati’s dangerous mix of tight ends and receivers.

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There was many a play where those linebackers dropped 10 or 12 yards from the line of scrimmage, completely vacating the area underneath. McCarron’s arm is stronger than Peyton Manning’s these days, but Denver presents some of the same problems at its skill positions. Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and the receiving corps give the AFC West champs plus matchups vs. Pittsburgh’s underwhelming cornerbacks, and the tight ends (Owen Daniels, Vernon Davis) are fully capable playmakers over the middle.

Pittsburgh certainly won’t copy its defensive game plan from Cincinnati to Denver. But it may unleash its linebackers in similar fashion—blitz and coverage designs meant to confuse Manning’s reads off the snap.

A combination of Steelers pressure plus Manning’s lingering accuracy issues downfield would activate Anderson and Hillman as receivers. Will the Broncos use them?

Lock of the Week

Arizona (-7) over Green Bay. The Packers appeared far more competent on offense last week and Aaron Rodgers finally found a groove. Still, don’t overthink this one. The Cardinals are a more complete—not to mention, rested—football team, featuring a defense light years better than Washington’s.

Upset of the Week

Kansas City (+5.5) at New England. I picked the Patriots to win this game, so I'll stick with that call. It’s going to be a tight, back-and-forth affair either way, however, so this line jumps out as being hefty.

Mock Draft Watch

This space was reserved during the regular season for a mini-mock draft covering the top five picks. The shifting standings at the time allowed for such an endeavor. With picks 1–24 set in stone (barring trades), though, I probably will not have seismic mock draft changes week-to-week.

That is, I force them myself. So, with that in mind, our “Mock Draft Watch” will try to vary the scenarios up top a bit, thereby leaving a little room to play with what could happen next. Consider it an exercise in hypotheticals.

This week: What if the Cowboys trade up to No. 1?

1. Dallas Cowboys (from Tennessee): Jared Goff, QB, Cal.

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Let’s just pretend for a moment that Jerry Jones can get through the off-season without sending a private jet for Johnny Manziel. The Cowboys cannot afford to wait on their “QB of the future”—not with Tony Romo turning 36 in April and coming off multiple collarbone injuries. Letting Goff sit and develop for a year or two would be ideal for him as a prospect, anyway.

Dallas currently holds just five draft picks, but it should add three or four (untradeable) compensatory selections. Would No. 4, No. 34 and a 2017 second-rounder be enough for Tennessee to slide back three spots?

2. Cleveland BrownsPaxton Lynch, QB, Memphis.

This is much higher than I’d feel comfortable taking Lynch. That said, the Browns currently are looking at a situation where Manziel is out and Josh McCown heads into 2016 without any threat behind him. Again, this is a draft-and-develop opportunity, where McCown can handle the job for a bit while Lynch learns from Hue Jackson.

3. San Diego Chargers: Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss.

The Chargers don’t need to take a QB this year, so seeing QBs go 1–2 would be ideal for them. They’d love to have the choice between a top OT and every defensive prospect (say, Joey Bosa?). Tunsil is a potential plug-and-play starter on the left side. That’s a spot currently held by King Dunlap, but he has endured injury issues and holds a contract that could be dropped without much financial pain.

4. Tennessee Titans (from Dallas): Ronnie Stanley, OT, Notre Dame.

Do the Titans go best player available here and take Bosa? Or do they attempt to fix their porous offensive line, as they very well could if they stay put at No. 1? Bosa could fit in either a 4–3 or 3–4, but without knowing exactly which way the Titans will go on defense (they're currently a 3–4 base team; I’d rather have Bosa in a 4–3), I'll go the safe route. Stanley and Tunsil are 1 and 1a at tackle.

5. Jacksonville JaguarsJoey Bosa, DE, Ohio State.

Want Gus Bradley to fix the Jaguars’ defense in a hurry? He'll have to find some help in the secondary, sure, but giving him Bosa and 2015 first-rounder Dante Fowler next season would solve a lot of problems. The Jaguars instantly would be formidable up front.

Poll Games

Each week, I’ll take to Twitter to take the readers’ pulse on a pressing NFL issue.

Can’t fault the logic behind picking Cincinnati here. That’s a very talented team with depth and youth at most key positions. The playoff-win drought is another issue.

I really did expect Houston to land a higher number. Add a quarterback to the mix there, and suddenly the Texans could be a double-digit win club and a very balanced club across the board. They have survived the past two seasons without a true starter.