Another postseason competition: Here comes Data Bowl

Into analytics? Then the NFL has a competition for you.

The league has scheduled the inaugural NFL Big Data Bowl, a football analytics event for affording college students and professionals. Entrants will have the opportunity to utilize historical data sets of the same player tracking data used by teams, and suggest innovations about how football is played and coached.

Finalists will present to league and club personnel at the combine in Indianapolis in late February, accessing NFL player tracking data used by teams to analyze league trends and develop on-field strategies.

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Participants can sign up for the competition on a website at ops.nfl.com/big-data-bowl. There are two competing categories: undergraduate/graduate student division, and an open division for participants not in higher education.

''As the sports analytics community continues to expand and progress, we are excited to host an analytics competition focusing on creative and innovative ways to approach and use football data,'' says Damani Leech, the NFL's senior vice president of football strategy and business development. ''The NFL and its clubs use of football analytics continues to grow and focusing the competition on college students and young professionals allows us to hear from the next generation of young minds that will help shape the industry in the years to come.''

Submissions using NFL-provided data fall under three themes: ''Understanding On-Field Speed;'' ''Proposing a Rule Change;'' and ''Identifying the Best Receiver-Route Combinations.''

Eight finalists in the Big Data Bowl - four from each of the two participant categories - will head to Indianapolis to showcase their work on Feb. 27, the first day of the combine. Two grand-prize winners will receive four tickets to any regular-season game of their choice.

RB RECEPTIONS

Running backs Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley both are approaching records - and not in the ground game.

Carolina's McCaffrey, in his second NFL season, leads all players at his position with 94 catches. He needs nine to surpass the league mark set by Matt Forte in 2014 with Chicago. It will be difficult to reach because starting quarterback Cam Newton is sidelined with a shoulder problem. Or maybe not, because replacement inexperienced Taylor Heinicke might concentrate on short throws.

The other running backs with at least 100 catches in a season are LaDainian Tomlinson for the Chargers in 2003 and Larry Centers for the Cardinals in 1995.

The Giants' Barkley has caught 82 balls, tops among rookies. Reggie Bush set the mark for rookie running backs with 88 for the Saints in 2006.

FITZ'S GIFT

Larry Fitzgerald and the Arizona Cardinals won't be playing in the Super Bowl. They might wind up with the first pick in the NFL draft.

Fitzgerald, though, is making sure someone deserving makes the trip to the big game in Atlanta: Jameson Lopez, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

Teaming with with USAA and The Pat Tillman Foundation - USAA will be coordinating similar efforts with other players around the NFL - Fitzgerald will host Lopez for Super Bowl weekend, something Fitzgerald calls ''a trip of a lifetime.''

Earlier this year, during the ''My Cause My Cleats'' campaign, Lopez and Fitzgerald met; Lopez is a Tillman scholar and shared with the star wide receiver how he has benefitted from the foundation set up to honor Pat Tillman's legacy.

Lopez was the leader of a tank platoon deployed in support of Operation New Dawn. During his deployment to Iraq, he was responsible for coordinating more than 300 combat missions with the Iraqi and Kurdish security forces.

A member of the Kwat'san (Quechan) Tribe in Fort Yuma, California, Lopez spent a significant amount of his childhood and adult years with Native American communities.

He is hoping to bring his father to the Super Bowl.

APOLOGIES

Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon was a fantasy football player in college and said he used to get ticked when players would be unable to go. Gordon missed last Thursday's game at Kansas City, which for many fantasy football leagues was the first week of the playoffs, and he posted a message on Twitter saying he understood their frustration.

''I used to get ticked when guys weren't playing and now I understand. I just wanted to let them know that I feel their pain. If I could have played I really would,'' Gordon said.

The fourth-year running back said he received more messages than usual from family and friends because of the postseason stakes involved, but he took it all stride and understood.

''I know it is playoffs/championship time and this is for their bread. It was cool,'' he said.

Gordon will be back this week when the Chargers host the Ravens, which is championship week in many leagues.

SNEAKY SACK MASTER

With a league-leading total of 47 sacks, the Minnesota Vikings naturally have had pass-rushing productivity from every position on their defense. Sending nickel cornerback Mackensie Alexander has proven to be a particularly effective strategy, with all four of his career sacks coming this season to tie a franchise record for a defensive back.

''Heck, if you don't get blocked, he should have an asterisk by that name,'' coach Mike Zimmer quipped.

Coach Mike Zimmer has been hard on the third-year player, who was slow to embrace a role in slot coverage rather than on the outside where he'd played most often at Clemson before being drafted in the second round in 2016.

''His technique has been better. I think he's understanding the defense and what we're trying to do a little bit better as well, so I think that's been a big plus for us this year,'' Zimmer said, adding: ''He was pretty immature when he first got here.''

Alexander didn't disagree.

''Just growing up as a person, as a player, as a man, in every phase like every player here,'' Alexander said. ''Just growth. It's good for everybody. It works.''

BIG APPLE, SMALL FIELD

The New York Streets are coming to the streets of New York.

Well, close.

An expansion team in the National Arena League, the Streets will split their home games between Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and the suburban Westchester County Center. Corey Galloway becomes the only African American-owned professional sports team in New York.

''As a developer and lifelong New Yorker, I'm committed to supporting projects that help New York kids by providing affordable entertainment and make this the best city in the world,'' Galloway says. ''It's always been a dream of mine to bring professional arena football to New York and increase opportunities for so many talented athletes. As the only black owner of a professional sports team in New York, I am especially proud to lead a team that will reflect the inclusive values that are the cornerstone of my business and of this city.''

The first home game will be in the spring, with indoor football veteran Rick Marsilio as head coach.

The NAL plans to expand further for 2019. It has six teams last year, located in Jacksonville, Florida; Columbus, Georgia; Allentown, Pennsylvania; Greensboro, North Carolina; Worcester, Massachusetts; and Portland, Maine.

(Corrects from Barclays Center to Madison Square Garden.)

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AP Pro Football Writers Barry Wilner and Dave Campbell, and Sports Writer Joe Reedy contributed.

More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/tag/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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