Falcons eager to end playoff drought vs Seahawks

Falcons eager to end playoff drought vs Seahawks

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) The Atlanta Falcons know what it takes to win in the regular season.

When it comes to the playoffs, that's another story.

Perhaps no team faced a greater burden going into this postseason than the Falcons (13-3), the NFC's top-seeded squad for the second time in three years. They've yet to win a playoff game under the current trio of quarterback Matt Ryan, coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff - one-and-done in all three appearances going back to the 2008 season, the last two not even close.

Not surprisingly, the players keep insisting the previous years don't matter; they're only looking forward to Sunday's divisional game with the streaking Seattle Seahawks (12-5).

But the senior member of the team, center Todd McClure, concedes there will probably be some additional pressure when the Falcons take the field at the Georgia Dome.

That makes a quick start crucial to Atlanta's hopes.

``We've been disappointed a few times,'' said McClure, who's been with the Falcons for 13 years. ``I think we've got guys in this locker room who are hungry and ready to get over that hump.''

The Falcons have gone 56-24 in the regular season since Dimitroff and Smith took over in 2008 and drafted Ryan with the No. 3 overall pick - more wins than any team during that span except New England (60-20). But the significance of five straight winning seasons, two division titles and, now, a fourth trip to the playoffs has been undermined by the lack of success in January.

It wasn't that big a deal when Atlanta, after surprisingly making the playoffs as a wild card one year after the Michael Vick debacle, lost to Arizona in the desert 30-24.

But the loss two years ago was a stunner, the No. 1-seeded Falcons - who, like this team, went 13-3 and earned a first-round bye - getting blown out at home in the divisional round by sixth-seeded Green Bay 48-21.

Then came last year, when Atlanta went 10-6 but was viewed as an underachieving squad, a perception that proved factual in the playoffs when the Falcons' high-powered but inconsistent offense was completely shut down by the New York Giants, who romped to a 24-2 victory on their way to capturing the Super Bowl title.

Carrying around all that baggage, the Falcons can't help but be a little skittish about facing a team that might be hotter than anyone in the league. The Seahawks have won six straight games, including last week's 24-14 victory over Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins in the opening round of the playoffs.

``We can't get too tight,'' McClure said Wednesday. ``There's going to be some added pressure, I'm sure. I'm not going to say there's not. But if we come out, start fast of both sides of ball, some of that will die down. Then we can just go out and play football.''

Seattle coach Pete Carroll shrugged off the notion that his team has some sort of psychological edge on the Falcons.

``This has nothing to do with years past or story lines,'' he said. ``We're playing a terrific team, with a terrific coach and a terrific quarterback, and we're on the road. It's a monstrous task.''

Much of the burden for turning things around in Atlanta falls on Ryan, who set numerous franchise passing records and was voted to the Pro Bowl for the second time.

That said, his career numbers in the regular season are much better than his postseason stats. He's yet to throw for 200 yards in a playoff game. He's tossed more interceptions (four) than touchdowns passes (three), including a crucial pick that was returned for a touchdown right before halftime in that loss to the Packers. His passer rating is about 20 points lower in the postseason.

Ryan certainly tries to learn from his mistakes, but he won't spend much time talking about what happened before this season.

``I don't worry about it, I don't think about it,'' he said. ``My focus is for this locker room and for these guys and this coaching staff, making sure we're all together. We worked really hard during the course of the offseason and through training camp to give ourselves an opportunity to be playing at this time of year. We want to play our best football. That's really the only thing I'm worried about.''

Ryan certainly has plenty of the offensive weapons, with a pair of Pro Bowlers (receiver Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez) plus another receiver who probably should've made it (Roddy White). While the running game has tailed off dramatically, the Falcons are much more capable of hitting big plays and putting up points in a hurry, a testament to the scheme installed by first-year coordinator Dirk Koetter.

``I'm confident in the guys around me,'' said Ryan, who has completed nearly 69 percent of his throws for 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns. ``We've proven we can go out there and be successful. You have to buy into that. You have to believe in that. I feel more comfortable with the guys around me.''

Protecting Ryan has been in an issue in the last three playoff losses, so the onus will be on an often-maligned line to keep the Seahawks out of the backfield - no easy task facing a defense that is willing to stack the line and leave its cornerbacks in single coverage.

But the biggest task for Smith and his coaching staff might be getting the players to have a convenient case of amnesia. He doesn't want them lingering over those last three trips to the playoffs.

``We're a much more mature team because of our experiences,'' Smith said. ``We feel very good about we've accomplished thus far this year. We have expectations. We set our goals, and we've been clicking along pretty well this season. I like the way we've played through the first season.''

Now comes the second season.

The one that really matters.

Notes: DE John Abraham (left ankle) and S William Moore (hamstring) were limited in practice Wednesday, but Smith said he expects both to play on Sunday. Moore hasn't played since a Nov. 29 victory over New Orleans. ... The only players to miss practice were a pair of backup defensive backs, rookie S Charles Mitchell (calf) and CB Christopher Owens (hamstring).

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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Takeaways from Wizards' impressive win over Bucks

Takeaways from Wizards' impressive win over Bucks

Looking like a more stable team minus the dropoff with the second unit, the Wizards won their second game in a row as they came behind in a tough matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday, 110-105.

The Wizards (9-13) trailed 100-95 but went on a 10-0 run to have the lead in the final 90 seconds. 

John Wall (24 points, 11 assists), Bradley Beal (20 points) and Markieff Morris (15 points, 9 rebounds) led the Wizards in a game that was closely contested from start to finish.

Otto Porter (10 points), Marcin Gortat (9 points, 14 rebounds) and Kelly Oubre (19 points, 9 rebounds) also contributed. It was Oubre's career-high in scoring.

Giannis Antetokounmpo (28 points, 13 rebounds) led the way for Milwaukee, playing on the second night of a back-to-back. Mirza Teletovic (25 points) was a spark off the bench along with rookie Malcolm Brogdon (11 points). John Henson (14 points) did most of his damage in the first half.

Porter and Oubre had clutch buckets in the last five minutes cut the deficit to 98-95 as they overcame two bad pass turnovers from Wall in transition late.

Wall made up for it by pushing the pace no matter what, and a twist of screens by Gortat freed him for a layup and a 101-100 lead with 3:03 left, Oubre had a steal and dunk and Beal a layup to shut the door.

--Antetokounmpo is a difficult matchup for anyone because of his length and size at 6-10. Porter needed more help as he has trouble with bigger, more physical players. The Wizards were more successful when they doubled with a guard and forced him to make a decision with the ball. He had seven of Milwaukee’s 20 turnovers.

--The second unit, led by Oubre and Trey Burke, went on a 12-0 run to erase a 32-23 deficit to start the second quarter. Morris played with them, including Andrew Nicholson and Marcus Thornton. By the time be re-entered for Thornton at 7:26, it was all. Wall came in one minute later for Burke. Not having to erase a big deficit meant neither backcourt starter had to log unusually high minutes, either.

--Teletovic registered DNP-CD’s in the previous two games for Milwaukee. He was instant offense in his first 10 minutes with eight points, making 2 of 3 three-point shots. He signed a three-year deal for $30 million this summer, leaving Phoenix, and is the type of stretch option the Wizards probably could’ve benefitted from off the bench considering their struggles scoring.

-- Morris and Gortat had their opportunities because of the way the Bucks defended the pick-and-roll. They trapped and doubled Wall and Beal. That meant the pocket pass was there or the rebounds off misses. The Wizards shot just 38.8% in the first half but the duo had 15 of their 25 rebounds. The Wizards had four more overall, including plus-10 on the offensive glass.

-- Oubre’s energy and defense has rocketed him up the rotation. He played more than anyone on the bench, 29 minutes, and almost had his second career double-double by halftime (nine points, seven rebounds). Oubre also finished the game with Porter again instead of Morris when the Wizards made the late run.

-- Jason Smith dropped from the rotation as he played just 21 seconds to end the second quarter, but he made two shots in the fourth quarter to steady them.

[RELATED: WIZARDS IMPRESSED BY LONGEVITY OF BUCKS' JASON TERRY]

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Redskins bring former starting center back to active roster

Redskins bring former starting center back to active roster

The Redskins officially brought Kory Lichtensteiger back to the active roster, and while the move is now for depth, it could have other ramifications down the road. 

The move is on the NFL's transaction report for Saturday. To make room for Lichtensteiger, the team released defensive lineman A.J. Francis. 

Dealing with injuries up and down the line of scrimmage, Lichtensteiger's return could give the offensive front more flexibility. When Lichtensteiger got injured Week 3 and sent to the injured reserve, third-year pro Spencer Long stepped in and performed well at center. Last week in Arizona, Long sustained a concussion.

That injury opened the door for John Sullivan, who will start this week in Philadelphia with Long ruled out. Sullivan was brought in as a backup to Long once Lichtensteiger was put on IR. With Long now in the NFL concussion protocol, the Redskins need another center should Sullivan get hurt. Alas, Lichtensteiger's return from the IR. 

Left guard Shawn Lauvao also sustained an injured groin, and that's where things could get interesting. Long is capable of playing guard, as is Lichtensteiger in a pinch. Should Lauvao's injury persist, Lichtensteiger might be able to help there.

Against the Eagles, the plan certainly appears to be second-year man Arie Kouandjio starting in place of Lauvao. Kouandjio made one earlier start this season - Week 4 against Cleveland - and the results were mixed.

If Kouandjio stumbles and Lauvao needs more time, Lichtensteiger's return to the roster gives Jay Gruden and Bill Callahan more flexibility, especially when Long returns from injury.

In fact, once the team has Long, Lichtensteiger and Sullivan healthy, there could be a bit of a logjam roster-wise on the offensive line, but considering all the injuries, bumps and bruises that are part of O-line life by the last four games of the season, the Redskins staff likely won't mind figuring that out. 

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