8-0 Falcons try to play down talk of perfection


8-0 Falcons try to play down talk of perfection

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) Todd McClure can tell this is becoming a special season for the Atlanta Falcons, just from all the extra time he's spending on the phone.

He's getting hit up for tickets. And extra tickets. And anything with a signature on it.

``I guess it comes with the territory,'' the Falcons' longtime center said Wednesday, ``so I'm embracing it.''

McClure is also embracing the idea of perfection, the goal that every team strives for but few will ever reach. The Falcons have won their first eight games, the best start in franchise history and halfway to a 16-0 season.

The 1972 Miami Dolphins are the only team in the modern era to make it through an entire year without a loss. The 2007 New England Patriots are the lone squad to go undefeated in a 16-game regular season (before losing, of course, in the Super Bowl).

Now, along come the Falcons.

Can they reach perfection?

``We can,'' McClure said without a hint of hesitation. ``There's no reason we can't. If we play our game, go out and do what we're supposed to go, we can. The sky's the limit for this team. Is it going to be hard? Yes. Will it be hard this week? Yes.

``But,'' he added, ``if we approach it week by week, it's definitely possible.''

An 8-0 start is not all that usual - the Falcons are the 10th team to do it in the last two decades, according to STATS LLC - but this is where the pressure starts to mount. There's more and more media attention, more and more questions about the streak. Opposing teams start to play with a little extra fire, eager to be the team that ends the unbeaten season.

That's why another Falcons' lineman, right tackle Tyson Clabo, is realistic about the chances of going 16-0.

``We're only halfway there,'' he said. ``Statistically, the chances of that are really slim. I mean, we base our game plans on statistics. Statistically, this what's going to happen, so we're going to do this. So I don't think we should deviate from our entire mindset based on this big, golden cow that everybody thinks we should try to get to.''

Besides, despite being the league's only unbeaten team, the Falcons are still searching for a little national respect.

Outside of Atlanta, there's still a great deal of skepticism about whether this team will end up holding the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season, no matter how good it looks at the moment.

The Falcons have defeated only one team (Denver in Week 2) with a winning record. The combined record of their first eight opponents is a rather dismal 24-41. Perhaps the two toughest games are still to come - Sunday's contest at New Orleans against the surging Saints, Atlanta's fiercest rival. Then there's a December contest against the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, who thoroughly dominated when the teams met last season in the playoffs.

``At this point, we have so many other goals that are more important than'' going 16-0, Clabo said. ``Like winning the division. Like trying to get a game in the (Georgia) Dome in the playoffs. We have a whole bunch of things we have to do before we even worry about doing that other thing.''

Still, the odds of the Falcons running the table start to look much better if they get to 9-0. Other than the NFC East-leading Giants (6-3), the remaining opponents on the schedule are a cumulative 17-24 (Atlanta still has two games left with division rival Tampa Bay). Four of the last seven games are at the Georgia Dome, where the Falcons have a 30-7 record since Mike Smith took over as coach in 2008.

``I think we've got the pedigree to do it,'' receiver Roddy White said. ``Offensively and defensively and how we are as a team. The locker room is very, very united right now. We go into every week expecting to win. ... We've still got to be consistent, don't turn the ball over and get turnovers. That's been the key to winning games all over this league. If we continue to do that, we'll be just fine.''

Indeed, Atlanta is among the league leaders in two categories that Smith considers the key to success: turnovers and penalties.

The Falcons have lost only one fumble all season - when quarterback Matt Ryan took a hit - and are plus-10 in turnover ratio, which ranks fourth behind Chicago, the Giants and New England. They are by far the least flagged team in the league, called for just 26 penalties (17 fewer than any other team) accounting for 207 yards (118 below the next-lowest total).

``Coach Smith is always pointing out the penalties that players have and how they affect the game,'' defensive back Robert McClain said. ``You don't want to be the guy who gets called out.''

The Saints (3-5) have shown signs of bouncing back from an 0-4 start, and they've won their last three meetings against the Falcons. New Orleans would love nothing better than to snuff out hope of an unbeaten season in Atlanta.

``We've got an opportunity to do something nobody's been able to do this year, and that's beat Atlanta,'' Saints offensive lineman Jahri Evans said. ``I'm kind of glad that they're undefeated.''

But much like the Falcons have to ward off the natural tendency to look ahead, New Orleans must guard against putting too much emphasis on ruining the Falcons' perfect season.

``That doesn't make a difference really,'' linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. ``It would be great for the fans. I know Saints fans would love that, but for us, we can't get caught up in all that hype and hoopla. They're a good team. They're 8-0 for a reason. It's not by luck that they're 8-0, so we have to understand who we're facing.''

The Falcons know that this season won't be judged on how many games they win during the regular season. This team has been one-and-done in all three trips to the postseason under Smith, so there truly are bigger goals than going 16-0.

Winning in the playoffs is the main thing.

``That's what everybody is waiting for us do,'' running back Michael Turner conceded. ``We've been winning here for a while now. This is nothing new. We just happen to be 8-0.''


AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in Metairie, La., contributed to this report.


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Road ahead suggests a wild finish in Eastern Conference playoff race

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Road ahead suggests a wild finish in Eastern Conference playoff race

The Eastern Conference standings are so closely bunched as of today that the third-place Cleveland Cavaliers are only 1 1/2 games ahead of the sixth-place Philadelphia 76ers. With roughly a dozen games remaining for each NBA team, much can and likely will change over the next several weeks.

That is common for this time of the year, but a closer look suggests we could be in for some chaos in the final stretch. There are lopsided remaining schedules and impending personnel changes which could all contribute to one of the wildest regular season finishes in recent memory.

The Wizards are smack dab in the middle of the East playoff race and have their own circumstances to navigate. Let's take a team-by-team look at the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, knowing the top two seeds are all but locked up by the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics...


3. Cleveland Cavaliers (41-29, 12 games left)

Monday was a crazy day for the Cavaliers. First, they announced their head coach Tyronn Lue is taking a leave of absence to deal with an undiagnosed health issue. He will be replaced by associate head coach Larry Drew in the interim as he hopes to heal up before the playoffs.

Then, news broke they were getting Kevin Love back from a broken wrist after missing 21 games. Love returned to put up 18 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks in a big win over the Milwaukee Bucks. 

The Cavaliers will be without their coach for an undefined period of time, but now have their second-best player back on the court. That makes their final part of the season extra fascinating.

The Cavs are the team to watch of this group. Even though this season has been filled with turmoil, they still have LeBron James. He and Love have helped form the core of the last three Eastern Conference champion teams. If they pick things up, it's not crazy to consider them among the favorites to get out of the East again.


4. Indiana Pacers (41-30, 11 games left)

The Pacers are mostly healthy as they only feature a slew of minor injuries to big men Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. But Indiana's remaining schedule is unusually tough and it could make the difference in where they end up.

With only 11 games remaining, the Pacers still have to play the first-place Toronto Raptors once and the Golden State Warriors twice. Six of their last eight games will be on the road. They also see the Heat, Pelicans, Nuggets and Clippers.

The Clippers are currently ninth in the West and battling to make the playoffs. The Pacers will play them twice.

Keep in mind the Wizards own the season series over Indiana and will have a playoff seeding tiebreaker if they end up with the same record. Also worth noting is the Pacers have been much better at home (24-13) than on the road (17-17) this season.


5. Washington Wizards (40-30, 12 games left)

Though the Wizards' schedule is finally letting up soon from the 13 straight playoff teams stretch they have had to endure dating back to February, they too have a tough road ahead. The Wizards still have to play the Spurs (twice), Rockets, Cavaliers, Celtics and Nuggets. Four of their last six games are on the road and they have three back-to-back sets in their final seven games.

That's brutal. They may not have to see the defending champions twice like Indiana does, but the Wizards don't exactly have it easy.

The Wizards will, however, get John Wall back at some point. The five-time All-Star is slowly but surely working his way back and could participate in a full practice by the end of the week. Ideally they will get some games under his belt before the playoffs, but any time an All-NBA player is coming back to your team it's a good thing.

The problem is that there is little room for error in the standings and head coach Scott Brooks will have to reinsert Wall into the lineup during a tough schedule and while Wall is on a minutes restriction. It will be a tricky task to balance his lineups. 


6. Philadelphia 76ers (39-30, 13 games left)

The Sixers may have the most ideal road ahead of these four teams, at least in terms of their schedule. They still have the Timberwolves, Nuggets, Cavs and Bucks. But none of those teams are the juggernauts that Golden State, Houston and Toronto are. And of their final 13 games, the Sixers will play nine against teams outside of the playoff picture.

Philly also does not have to reincorporate a major piece into their rotation, like the Cavs do with Love and the Wizards with Wall. Their biggest injury is to Markelle Fultz, the 2017 No. 1 overall pick. If he does return this season, it will likely be in a minimal role, at least to start.

What could work against the Sixers is their inexperience and recent struggles against good teams. The Sixers are relying on very young players who have never been here before to carry the way. And since Valentine's Day, Philly has just one win against a team above the .500 mark, when they beat the Cavs on March 1. During those 14 games since Feb. 14, they have beaten up on the bad teams but lost to the Wizards, Bucks, Pacers and Heat (twice), basically all the teams surrounding them in the standings. 

Philly also lost their season series against the Cavs and Pacers, tied with the Wizards and are down 2-1 against the Bucks with one game to go. They may go to the finish line without a playoff tiebreaker against all the teams they would want one against.

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Ryan Grant reportedly signing with Colts after failed physical with Ravens

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Ryan Grant reportedly signing with Colts after failed physical with Ravens

It looks like Ryant Grant has found his new home, again.

After a failed physical with the Ravens, James Jones of NFL Network reports Grant plans to sign with the Colts.


Grant originally agreed to a four-year, $29 million deal with the Ravens, before the team pulled the offer citing an ankle injury that dated to the Redskins' final regular-season game, according to reports.

Baltimore eventually signed Michael Crabtree to a three-year deal, while Grant had visits with the Colts and Raiders.

His agent, Rocky Arceneaux, says Grant has been working out, running routes, and his ankle had been cleared by Dr. Robert Anderson in a second opinion.

In 2017 with the Redskins, he appeared in all 16 games, with 45 receptions for 573 yards and four touchdowns.