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Falcons will play regular season finale to win

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Falcons will play regular season finale to win

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith rewarded his players with three days off after they earned the NFC's top seed.

As Smith sees it, the Falcons need as much rest as possible before they host a divisional round game in three weeks.

``It is a grind through four preseason games and 16 regular season games,'' Smith said on Sunday. ``If you're fortunate enough to play in that second season, you want to be as fresh as you can be.''

When Atlanta (13-2) returns to practice on Wednesday, Smith will begin to determine how much the starters will play when Tampa Bay (6-9) visits the Georgia Dome next Sunday.

Some decisions might not be made until late in the week, but it seems unlikely that quarterback Matt Ryan and other valuable starters will take every snap against the Buccaneers.

Either way, Smith wants to see how focused his players are in practice.

If they prepare as well as they did before blowing out the New York Giants two weeks ago and taking a 31-18 victory Saturday night at Detroit, the Falcons should be able to build a quick lead on Tampa Bay.

But that was hardly the case at Carolina on Dec. 9 when Atlanta played a sloppy game - offensively, defensively and on special teams - for the first time this season.

The Falcons were coming off an emotional home victory over New Orleans the week before to win the NFC South title, but they looked lethargic against the Panthers.

Smith said the team can't afford to waste the Tampa Bay game as an opportunity to improve.

``We're going to play the game to win,'' he said. ``That's how we're going to approach it. All games are important, and in terms of the importance, does it have no bearing? It really does because we want to win every time we go out and play.''

Except for an unproductive third quarter at Detroit, Atlanta essentially dominated the Lions by following a script that's worked well this season - start fast, win the turnover margin, avoid penalties and close with a flourish.

In the first half, Ryan completed 15 of 16 passes for 184 yards, Roddy White outran the coverage on two long touchdown catches and Julio Jones scored the third TD by getting both feet down in the back of the end zone.

Another reason the Falcons led 21-6 at halftime: Fumbles forced by Corey Peters and John Abraham and recovered by Peria Jerry and Robert McClain.

The offense followed each takeaway with a touchdown.

``We had to come out here and win this game,'' Jones said. ``We slipped up against Carolina looking at their record and everything. And this is another team that doesn't have a really good record but I mean it's the NFL. We've got to come out here and play every (time).''

Turnovers weren't the only means for success on defense. Late in the first quarter, cornerback Dunta Robinson stopped Kevin Smith 10 yards short of a first down to force a field goal. Early in the fourth, Peters tackled quarterback Matthew Stafford 2 yards short to force another field goal.

Ryan and the offense used up all but 12 seconds of the next 10-plus minutes - the only Detroit snap ending with Asante Samuel's interception - to take a 15-point lead.

``I thought we did a great job of it on that (second) drive in the fourth quarter,'' Ryan said. ``We converted a couple of third downs, kept it going and were able to punch it in. That was a huge momentum changer.''

If the Falcons can keep their momentum going with sharp focus in practice next week, Smith believes they won't suffer a letdown similar to the one that torpedoed their 2010 season with a blowout loss to Green Bay in the playoffs.

Atlanta had the No. 1 seed then, too, but Smith plans to change the practice routine after the Tampa Bay game. He indicated that players seemed overworked two years ago during the playoff bye week.

``We'll handle it differently with our workload and the days that we're going to work during our bye week and what our schedule will be,'' Smith said. ``We're not going to do anything like we did the last time.''

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3 reasons why the Caps beat the Sabres

3 reasons why the Caps beat the Sabres

You may think this was an ugly four-game road trip for the Caps, but with a 3-2 win in Buffalo on Monday, Washington managed to earn five out of a possible eight points.

Here is why the Caps beat the Sabres and managed to save the road swing.

A missed high-stick (maybe) from Ovechkin

Ovechkin scored the first goal of the game in the second period as he deflected a high-shot from Christian Djoos down past goalie Chad Johnson. But did the deflection come on a high stick? The play was reviewed and the goal was ultimately upheld. According to the NHL, it was determined that "video review supported the Referee's call on the ice that Alex Ovechkin's stick was at or below the height of the crossbar when he tipped the puck into the Buffalo net."

NBC Sports Washington analyst Alan May broke the play down during the second intermission and made his case for why the NHL actually got the call wrong.

Was that a high stick? I don't know. As compelling an argument as May made, it still looks inconclusive which means the review made the right call. What surprises me is that the referee did not disallow the goal on the initial call.

Whether the review is truly inconclusive or flat out wrong, Washington was fortunate to walk away from this sequence with the goal.

MORE CAPITALS: BIZARRE SEQUENCE LEADS TO CAPS SCORING AND GETTING PENALIZED AT THE SAME TIME

A centimeter of ice

Hockey is a game of inches and it took less than an inch to put Washington up 2-0. When an Evgeny Kuznetsov shot hit off the boards and bounced back to the front of the net, it sparked a scrum next to goalie Chad Johnson. Eventually, John Carlson was able to get a swipe on the puck sending it trickling to the goal line, but Kyle Okposo was there waiting and appeared to kick it out to safety just before it crossed. A review triggered by the Situation Room, however, revealed that the puck had just barely managed to cross the goal line before Okposo got to it.

Here's the view the NHL released after the review:

Philipp Grubauer's third period

After dominating the first 40 minutes of the game and taking a 2-0 lead, Buffalo predictably made a late push in the third period with two goals to pull within one. Washington outshot the Sabres in the first and second periods, but Buffalo reversed that trend in a big way in the third as they outshot the Caps 17-6. Grubauer turned aside 15 of those shots and was impressive after barely being tested in the first two periods.

RELATED: CHECK OUT THE 3 STARS OF THE GAME FROM CAPS-SABRE

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3 stars of the game: Caps knock out the punchless Sabres

3 stars of the game: Caps knock out the punchless Sabres

Coming off an ugly 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, a Buffalo Sabres team missing star Jack Eichel was just what the doctor ordered for the Caps to get back on track. Washington dominated the first two periods and then survived a late surge from Buffalo for the 3-2 win.

After battling to a scoreless first, Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson spotted Washington a 2-0 lead in the second. They then held on in the third period as Buffalo began to tilt the ice in their favor, with Evgeny Kuznetsov scoring the empty-netter to put this game out of reach. Evander Kane would pull Buffalo within one, but with only three seconds left it was too little, too late.

Here are the three stars of the game:

1. Alex Ovechkin: Ovechkin opened up the scoring in the second period as he deflected down an innocent shot from Christian Djoos past Chad Johnson.

Ovechkin also set a physical tone as he battled with defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen all game long. After taking a high elbow from Ristolainen early in the game Ovechkin skated up to Ristolainen prior to the faceoff on his next shift and let him know that it was on. 

2. John Carlson: Carlson had a hand in both of Washington's first two goals. He recorded a secondary assist on Ovechkin's goal as he made a blue line pass to Djoos which Djoos fired on net and Ovechkin deflected. Carlson then managed to hit the puck past the goal line in a scrum next to Johnson. It looked initially like Kyle Okposo had managed to kick out the puck just before it crossed, but Carlson was awarded the goal as a review showed the puck had completely crossed the line.

3. Philipp Grubauer: A Sabres team that ranks last in the NHL in scoring and that was also without its leading scorer did not test Grubauer much in the first two periods. Facing a 2-0 deficit, however, Buffalo made a third period push to try to tie the game, but Grubauer was up to the task as he turned aside 15 of the 17 shots he faced in the final 20 minutes. He finished with 32 total saves on the night.