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Dallas TE Witten close to passing Irvin in catches

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Dallas TE Witten close to passing Irvin in catches

IRVING, Texas (AP) Jason Witten still remembers vividly his first NFL catch, though at the time the Dallas Cowboys tight end didn't think enough about it to even keep the ball.

It was a 13-yard pass from Quincy Carter in the fourth quarter of a loss against Atlanta, the only catch of his NFL debut in the 2003 season opener.

``It's one of those deals, you catch it, you get up. It's just football, this is what we do,'' Witten recalled Wednesday. ``It seems like it was yesterday.''

When the Cowboys play at Atlanta on Sunday night, Witten might catch a ball really worth keeping.

With four more receptions, Witten will surpass Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin's career mark of 750 that stands as the Cowboys' franchise record.

``Their exterior might be different but they're all about the same thing,'' said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, who was Irvin's teammate. ``Each of those guys is as good a teammate as I've been around, as passionate about this game as I've been around, works as hard at this game as anybody I've ever been around. Really, really well liked.

``Michael is obviously flamboyant. Jason is not quite as flamboyant. But the passion in both of those guys is there.''

Witten broke his own single-game franchise record by catching 18 passes in a loss to the New York Giants last Sunday. The seven-time Pro Bowler has 43 receptions over the last four games after a slow start while he recovered from a lacerated spleen.

Now he is close to passing Irvin's career mark established over 12 seasons (1988-99).

``He was one of the greatest,'' Witten said. ``So just to be mentioned with Michael Irvin is special, and hopefully we'll have a good discussion after a big win about it, once it happens. But really, until then, my focus is trying to help this team win and where we're at in the season.''

The Cowboys (3-4), after missing a chance to get within a half-game of the Giants (6-2) for the NFC East lead, now play the NFL's only undefeated team.

That also means Witten has a chance to break Irvin's record with Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez on the other side of the field.

Witten ranks third on the tight end list with his 747 catches, trailing Gonzalez (1,195) and retired Shannon Sharpe (815). Witten is also third among tight ends with 8,396 yards receiving.

``I have all of the respect for him. He plays the position the way it's supposed to be played,'' Gonzalez said of Witten during a conference call with Dallas media. ``He's definitely, without a doubt, a dual tight end. That means he blocks and catches, and obviously where the state of the tight end is in the NFL right now. I mean a lot of these guys are just catching passes so I love seeing a guy like him blocking and catching the ball and doing both things very, very well.''

Gonzalez and Witten have become friends over the years while playing in Pro Bowl games and attending Super Bowls. For all of their catches and records, they have only one playoff victory among them - Gonzalez is 0-5 and Witten 1-4 with an NFC wild-card victory three seasons ago.

This is the 16th NFL season for Gonzalez, who plans on retiring after this one. He said he is ``95 percent sure'' of that even though he has no doubt he could play at a pretty high level for a couple of years more.

``He's the greatest to ever play the tight end position,'' Witten said. ``It's amazing, he's still going at the level that he's doing it. You talk about durability and consistency, he kind of defines that, especially at this position.

``I'm a big fan, and it's great to see him still at a high level the way he plays and how he carries himself both on and off the field.''

Witten has played in 150 NFL games. The only game he missed was because of a broken jaw as a rookie in Bill Parcells' first season as Cowboys coach.

It was Parcells who used to say then about Witten, ``don't put him in Canton yet.''

But there could be a future spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for Witten, who never even considered being the Cowboys' career receptions leader when he first arrived as a third-round draft pick out of Tennessee.

``I was just trying to survive that first training camp,'' Witten said. ``You're always in search of the perfect play and the perfect game, so it's just this process you're always trying to be better and better and better. You don't really get to that point that you can enjoy it, because you're always looking for more, and expectations get higher.

``If it happens, it will be special.''

Notes: WR Dez Bryant (hip) and RB DeMarco Murray (sprained foot) didn't practice Wednesday. Neither did LB Dan Connor (neck), who was hurt against the Giants. ... Garrett said his parents, who ``live right across the street from the ocean'' in Monmouth Beach, N.J., are OK after Hurricane Sandy. He said they aren't back in their house, but ``actually did OK relative to some people.''

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NHL Power Rankings: Capitals remain the class of the division

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NHL Power Rankings: Capitals remain the class of the division

Saturday’s game between the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets was built up as a battle for first place. It didn’t take long for Washington show that they remain the class of the division as the Caps walked away with an emphatic 4-0 win.

The  Metropolitan Division is just plain bad this year. New Jersey and Philadelphia are surprisingly atrocious, Carolina is still a player or two (and a goalie) away from being a playoff team, the Rangers will go only as far as Henrik Lundqvist can carry them, the Islanders have made great strides under Barry Trotz but are nowhere close to contending and this looks like Pittsburgh’s weakest team since the Mike Johnston era.

At this point, the only two teams that look like clear playoff teams are Washington and Columbus and even that may be a stretch depending on how the Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky situation pans out for the Blue Jackets.

There’s still a lot of hockey left to play this season, but the Caps made an early statement on Saturday that they remain the team to beat in the Metro and no one looks anywhere close to challenging them at this point.

SEE THIS WEEK’S NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE

Here are a few observations from the past week:
•    Tom Wilson provided one heck of a spark when he returned from suspension. The way the Caps responded to his injury with two wins on the road is impressive and says a lot about this team’s mental makeup and resiliency, even more so than how they rallied after Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie both came out of the lineup.
•    Is Kuznetsov all the way back? He just does not seem like the same player who dazzled us in the first month of the season. Yes, he has a five-game point streak, but he is not dominating the game the same way. Earlier in the season, his talent was evident every time he stepped onto the ice. Whenever Connor McDavid is on the ice, you notice him. Whenever Nathan MacKinnon is on the ice, you notice him. That was true of Kuznetsov early on, but has not been true since he returned to the lineup.
•    Oshie is skating which means he is making progress, but the team should take a slow approach to his return. After he suffered a concussion last year from a hit by Joe Thornton, he did not play well when he returned for quite a while. The Caps are winning and are in first place, there’s no reason to really rush him back.
•    The power play is starting to become a major concern. The loss of Oshie certainly hurts, but that unit was starting to struggle even before the game in Winnipeg in which he was injured. When watching the Columbus game on Friday, someone asked Alan May what he thought the problem was and he said zone entries. There’s definitely something to that. The power play still looks as deadly as ever when the team sets it up, but it seems like they are having a real tough time just getting to that point. They just cannot get the puck into the offensive zone and keep possession.

Even with Wilson, Oshie and Orpik out, the Caps keep finding ways to win and that his them climbing up the rankings.

FIND OUT WHERE THEY LAND IN THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS.

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The Wizards' latest trade breaks up positive pairing

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The Wizards' latest trade breaks up positive pairing

Ian Mahinmi and Jason Smith shared several similarities beyond being very tall men. At 32, they were the oldest players on the Wizards roster. Both arrived in Washington during the 2016 free agency period. They each fell out of the Wizards’ playing rotation this season with Thomas Bryant emerging as the starting center.

There’s another.

Despite receiving limited minutes in recent weeks, each remained remarkably upbeat to the point they could hold seminars on the topic of positive thinking.

“That’s the business. We’re in a tough business,” Mahinmi told NBC Sports Washington. “Me being in this league for 12 years, I understand it’s a long season. It’s a process. At the end of the day, you being mad isn’t going to much for yourself or the team. Have to be professional. You got to be positive.”

The Wizards (11-15) close their four-game road swing Monday against the Pacers (16-10). No doubt Mahinmi keeps that attitude Monday night against his former team even if the 6-foot-11 center doesn’t enter the game.

Smith would as well if he still played for the Wizards. Washington traded the 7-footer Friday in a three-team deal with the Bucks and Cavaliers. 

"When you see good basketball out there, it's easy to be upbeat. It's easy to be upbeat for your teammates out there,” Smith said to NBC Sports Washington Friday. Hours later Smith found out positively he was headed to Milwaukee.

Mahinmi remains as does what’s left of that four-year, $64 million contract that expires after the 2019-20 season. The signing was arguably curious from the start because of the contract terms and presence of now ex-Wizard Marcin Gortat. Positivity, perhaps Mahinmi's greatest contribution, doesn't show in the box score and the center's limited production is a constant source of annoyance for fans. 

The 10-year veteran also feels frustration. Mahinmi wants to play, contribute to the cause. For now, and likely going forward, Wizards coach Scott Brooks looks elsewhere except for spot minutes. Mahinmi didn’t play in eight of Washington’s last 11 games. While helpful as a rebounder and defender, he struggles offensively and averages six personal fouls per 36 minutes. 

Through it all, the smile and warmth remain for the husband and father of three. Fatherhood is yet another connection with Smith (and most of the Wizards roster at this point). Listening to them talk about the 21-year-old Bryant made it sound like a co-parenting situation.

“His absolute genuine joy is fun to see,” Smith said like a proud father. 

Despite Saturday’s 116-101 road loss to the Cavaliers, the Wizards are 6-4 since the energetic Bryant entered the starting lineup Nov. 20 against the Clippers. Washington’s season doesn’t hinge on Bryant’s development, but him turning into a steady option is essential. 

That’s an area Mahinmi seeks to offer help just like an NBA legend did for him upon entering the league with the Spurs in 2007.

“I’ll always remember when I was a young player trying to establish myself in this league and thrown into the mix. Obviously, it was very different. I was behind Tim Duncan. It meant everything to have the support of my elders, the vets and everyone around me. I’m trying to do this for (Thomas and the) young guys.”

While not playing consistently isn't ideal, Mahinmi said family life lifts his spirits, and maturity offers a new perspective.

“I can guarantee you if I was younger I wouldn’t be dealing with the challenges with the same approach,” Mahinmi said. “It’s good because basketball isn’t everything for me. I have bigger things, more important things going on in my life.”

Smith’s life changed Friday. He joined his new teammates Sunday and met with the Milwaukee media. He quickly impressed reporters with his attitude. 

Part of Smith knows he needs to impress NBA general managers and scouts with his play. 

His three-year contract, which included a player option of $5.45 million for the current season, expires this summer. Playing in only 12 of Washington’s 25 games before the trade didn’t help the cause of landing another deal.

“I mean, a little bit,” Smith said of free agency weighing on his mind, “but things will work out in the end. I’m 12 years in. This is all icing on the cake for me.”

Regarding his on-court role, it’s been a slippery road for Mahinmi since leaving Indiana in 2016. He’d love to play Monday in one of the NBA cities he considers home. The reality is others offer traits better suited to deal with the Pacers’ interior trio of Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, and Thad Young.

Maybe Mahinmi, now the final remaining member of the questionable group of 2016 additions, sneaks in for some action. Regardless, the nice man from France will keep up the encouragement.

“You have to be genuinely happy for your teammates,” Mahinmi said. “You’ve got to be willing to go through those times as a player, find the benefits of all challenges. It’s definitely a challenge for myself, for Jason, but I’m here for the team.”

That’s where the similarities with Smith end.

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