AFC East champion Patriots not celebrating yet

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AFC East champion Patriots not celebrating yet

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- With a 23-16 win over the Dolphins Sunday afternoon, the Patriots won their ninth AFC East title in 10 years.

The clinch was about as surprising as the post-game reaction.

"I think it's one of those things where you savor it for the next 24 hours, maybe, and then we'll enjoy it after the season," said Matthew Slater. "There's a lot of football left to be played, a lot to be decided, and goals that we still have to hopefully accomplish."

It is the Patriot Way to share credit, deflect praise, and celebrate nothing until the final bell. But this time, these guys aren't just going through the motions.

This year's clinch has come in Week 13. New England doesn't just have four games left, it has upcoming back-to-back games against the Texans (10-1) and 49ers (8-2).

However confident the Patriots might have been Sunday morning about winning the division, there's little certainly about the future from here on out.

"We'll enjoy this one today, but the road from here on out is very daunting," Slater said. "We have some tough opponents coming in to Foxboro, starting with Houston next week. There's a lot still to be decided as far as seeding is concerned. Ideally, we'd like to have the highest seed possible, so there's a lot of work left to be done."

Which is not to say the Patriots weren't appreciative.

In the locker room after the Dolphins game most players had their hats propped proudly in their lockers, and a few put them on before even getting dressed.

Trevor Scott, who had two sacks of Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill, allowed himself a moment of revelry. But only because he and his teammates earned something they worked so hard for.

"We've been talking about it all week," Scott admitted. "It was good to beat the Dolphins and be AFC East Champs. That's what we aspired to all week. We had a good, hard week of practice and came out here. The fact that we got it done today . . . it's huge for us. It's a right step in the direction we want to go."

Think Scott just has a different perspective? Before signing with New England in March, the defensive end spent four seasons with the Oakland Raiders, whose "Just win, baby" mantra hasn't meant much since 2002.

But not even the longer-tenured Patriots are spoiled.

Linebacker Jerod Mayo has gotten a new championship hat and t-shirt in the last four of his five seasons in New England. He didn't wear the cap in his post game interview, but smiled widely when it was referenced.

"It never gets old," he said of the tradition. "This is a great group of teams -- Buffalo, the Jets, Dolphins."

And then he returned to center.

"We're going to enjoy this one, but we have other goals for the season," he sang in that old refrain.

STANLEY CUP FINALS: Guentzel's goal lifts Penguins by Predators 5-3 in Game 1

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STANLEY CUP FINALS: Guentzel's goal lifts Penguins by Predators 5-3 in Game 1

PITTSBURGH - Pittsburgh rookie Jake Guentzel beat Nashville's Pekka Rinne with 3:17 left in regulation to put the Penguins ahead to stay in a 5-3 victory in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night.

Guentzel snapped an eight-game goalless drought to help the defending champions escape after blowing a three-goal lead.

Nick Bonino scored twice for the Penguins. Conor Sheary scored his first of the playoffs and Evgeni Malkin scored his eighth. The Penguins won despite putting just 12 shots on goal. Murray finished with 23 saves for the Penguins, who used the first coach's challenge in finals history to wipe out an early Nashville goal and held on despite going an astonishing 37:09 at one point without a shot.

Game 2 is Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.

Ryan Ellis, Colton Sissons and Frederick Gaudreau scored for the Predators. Rinne stopped just seven shots.

The Penguins had all of three days to get ready for the final following a draining slog through the Eastern Conference that included a pair of Game 7 victories, the second a double-overtime thriller against Ottawa last Thursday.

Pittsburgh downplayed the notion it was fatigued, figuring adrenaline and a shot at making history would make up for any lack of jump while playing their 108th game in the last calendar year.

Maybe, but the Penguins looked a step behind at the outset. The Predators, who crashed the NHL's biggest stage for the first time behind Rinne and a group of talented defenseman, were hardly intimidated by the stakes, the crowd or the defending champions.

All the guys from the place dubbed "Smashville" have to show for it is their first deficit of the playoffs on a night a fan threw a catfish onto the ice to try and give the Predators a taste of home.

The Penguins, who led the league in scoring, stressed before Game 1 that the best way to keep the Predators at bay was by taking the puck and spending copious amounts of time around Rinne. It didn't happen, mostly because Nashville's forecheck pinned the Penguins in their own end. Clearing attempts were knocked down or outright swiped, tilting the ice heavily in front of Murray.

Yet Pittsburgh managed to build a quick 3-0 lead anyway thanks to a fortunate bounce and some quick thinking by Penguins video coordinator Andy Saucier. Part of his job title is to alert coach Mike Sullivan when to challenge a call. The moment came 12:47 into the first when P.K. Subban sent a slap shot by Murray that appeared to give the Predators the lead.

Sullivan used his coach's challenge, arguing Nashville forward Filip Forsberg was offside. A lengthy review indicated Forsberg's right skate was in the air as he brought the puck into a zone, a no-no.

It temporarily deflated Nashville and gave the Penguins all the wiggle room they needed to take charge.

Malkin scored on a 5-on-3 15:32 into the first, Sheary made it 2-0 just 65 seconds later and when Nick Bonino's innocent centering pass smacked off Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm's left knee and by Rinne just 17 seconds before the end of the period, Pittsburgh was in full command.

It looked like a repeat of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa, when the Penguins poured in four goals in the first period of a 7-0 rout.

Nashville, unlike the Senators, didn't bail. Instead they rallied.

Ellis scored the first goal by a Predator in a Stanley Cup Final 8:21 into the second. Though Nashville didn't get another one by Murray, they also kept Rinne downright bored at the other end. Pittsburgh didn't manage a shot on net in the second period, the first time it's happened in a playoff game in franchise history.

Nashville kept coming. Sissons beat Murray 10:06 into the third and Gaudreau tied it just after a fruitless Pittsburgh power play.

No matter. The Penguins have become chameleons under Sullivan. They can win with both firepower and precision.

Guentzel slipped one by Rinne with 3:17 to go in regulation and Bonino added an empty netter to give Pittsburgh early control of the series.

Harper, Strickland throw punches in Nationals-Giants brawl

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Harper, Strickland throw punches in Nationals-Giants brawl

SAN FRANCISCO - An enraged Bryce Harper charged the mound, fired his helmet and traded punches to the head with San Francisco reliever Hunter Strickland after getting hit by a fastball, setting off a wild brawl Monday during the Washington Nationals' 3-0 win over the Giants.

Drilled in the right hip by a 98 mph heater on Strickland's first pitch in the eighth inning with two outs, none on and Washington ahead 2-0, Harper didn't hesitate. The slugger pointed his bat at Strickland, yelled at him and took off.

No one got in Harper's way as he rushed the mound. His eyes were wide as he flung his helmet - it sailed way wide of Strickland, it might've slipped - and they started swinging away. The 6-foot-4 Strickland hit Harper in the face, then they broke apart for a moment before squaring off again. Harper punched Strickland in the head as the benches and bullpen emptied.

Giants teammates Michael Morse and Jeff Samardzija collided hard as they tried to get between the two fighters. Three Giants players forcefully dragged Strickland from the middle of the pack all the way into the dugout, while a teammate held back Harper.

Harper and Strickland were both ejected. They have some history between them - in the 2014 NL Division Series, Harper hit two home runs off Strickland, and the All-Star outfielder glared at the reliever as he rounded the bases after the second shot in Game 4.