Nationals

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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3 Up, 3 Down: Allow Juan Soto to distract you from Bryce Harper

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USA TODAY

3 Up, 3 Down: Allow Juan Soto to distract you from Bryce Harper

Nationals fans are teetering on the edge. 

On one hand, the Nats are 3.5 games out of first place after a 10-week span full of injuries and underperformance. The team just acquired All-Star closer Kelvin Herrera, and their 19-year-old left fielder looks like an All-Star already. 

On the other hand, doom is imminent. The Monstars stole Bryce Harper's abilities at some point over the last three weeks, Steven Strasburg can't stay healthy, and the offense is pushing everyone's patience to the limit. 

So who's overperforming? Who's underperforming? Who's out there just trying their very best? LET'S LIST. 

Three Up

1. Juan Soto

Our large young son Juan continues to impress. He's now hitting .325/.411/.602 with a 1.013 OPS in 95 plate appearances over 25 games. That means we're mercifully starting to leave the 'fluky start' narrative behind. He's been the best hitter on the Nationals by a wide margain since he got called up - although that's perhaps more of an indicitment on the rest of the lineup than it is on Soto. Still, in less than a month he's probably earned the starting left field spot for the rest of the summer. Not bad. 

2. Justin Miller

Miller is 31, on his third team in four years, and owns a career ERA north of 4.50. Despite all of this, Miller's been the best reliever in baseball since coming up for the Nats. Of relief pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched (we hear your sample size comment and are not going to acknolwdge it), no one has a better FIP than Miller (0.64). He's striking out over half of the batters he sees and has yet to walk a single person this year. All the elite relief pitchers are already at 30-40 innings pitched, so Miller has a while to go before these stats mean a whole lot. If he stays even 75 percent as good as he's started, the Nats' bullpen looks scary. 

3. Michael A. Taylor

Have yourself a week or two, Michael A.! The centerfielder is slashing .500/.556/.583 over the last 14 days, the first of many "Maybe He Put It Together?!" runs we'll see from him this year. He also has six stolen bases during that span, more than anyone else on the team. His plate discipline has been better over the last two weeks, with a BB% a shade over 11 percent - only behind Juan Soto for highest on the team. Juan Soto, man. 

Three Down

1. Bryce Harper

A couple things here. We'll start with the admission that Bryce Harper is obviously not having a superb year. We've already briefly touched on why looking at only his batting average is a lazy way of judging his season, and we stand by that. With that said - Harper's had a bad season. The last month has been particularly painful. There's no way of dressing up a .189/.278/.400 slashline over the last 30 days. Still, his contact has been as great as his luck terrible - there's a positive regression coming, we promise. 

2. Pedro Severino 

And you think Harper's been slumping?? Over the same 30 days, Severino has hit .098/.179/.115 with a .294 OPS. He's essentially daring the Nats to put together a trade package for JT Realmuto at this point. He has six hits over his last 68 plate appearances and five of them are singles. 

3. Shawn Kelley

Kelley owns a 6.09 FIP and a 4.32 ERA over the last month (10 games, 8.1 innings pitched). He's walking close to nine percent of the hitters he's faced during that time. He has a 12.5 HR/FB over the last month. With the trade for Kelvin Herrera and the sudden emergence of Justin Miller, Kelley's role going forward isn't quite as clear anymore. 

MORE NATS NEWS:

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Wizards 2018 NBA Draft prospect profile: Jerome Robinson

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USA TODAY Sports

Wizards 2018 NBA Draft prospect profile: Jerome Robinson

The Washington Wizards hold the 15th and 44th overall picks in the 2018 NBA Draft. Here is the latest in our series on draft prospects projected to be picked around where the Wizards will select...

2018 NBA Draft Wizards Prospect Preview: Jerome Robinson

School: Boston College
Position: Shooting guard
Age: 21
Height: 6-5
Weight: 188
Wingspan: 6-7
Max vertical: N/A

2017/18 stats: 20.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.3 apg, 0.9 spg, 0.1 bpg, 48.5 FG%, 40.9 3PT% (2.3 3PT/5.7 3PA), 83.0 FT%
Player comparison: Danny Green
Projections: NBC Sports Washington 29th, NBADraft.net 16th, Bleacher Report 19th, Sports Illustrated 17th

5 things to know:

*A three-year player at BC, Robinson developed into a big-time scorer before making the leap to the NBA. He averaged 18.7 points as a sophomore and then 20.7 points as a junior while improving his shooting percentages across the board. He went from 42.3 percent from the field as a sophomore to 48.5 in 2017-18.

*Robinson turned himself into an excellent three-point shooter. After shooting just 33.3 percent as a sophomore, he got that up to 40.9 percent as a junior and on 5.7 attempts per game. That trajectory bodes well for Robinson's chances at the next level.

*He has a quick release on his jumper, giving him the ability to be effective on catch-and-shoot plays off screens. Robinson could develop into a reliable scorer who doesn't need the ball in his hands as a primary focus of the offense. He also showed the ability to throw down some powerful dunks and finish with creativity at the rim. He didn't record a vertical leap at the NBA Combine, but playing above and around the rim didn't appear to be a problem in college.

*Though it didn't show in his last season at Boston College, Robinson was adept at forcing turnovers in his first two years. He averaged 1.6 steals per game across his freshman and sophomore seasons and 16 times in his career had three steals or more in a game.

*Questions for Robinson would include his versatility and speed. Some draft evaluators wonder if he will be able to get separation off the dribble at the NBA level. Also, he put up decent rebounding and assists numbers in college but didn't exactly stand out in either category.

Fit with Wizards: Robinson would give the Wizards depth at the shooting guard position and they need that. He could help Bradley Beal pare down his minutes and offer a scoring punch off the Wizards' bench. The Wizards could use a reliable shooter to help space the floor for Kelly Oubre, Jr. and others in the second unit.

The problems with Robinson's fit would be his lack of positional versatility and what appears to be a relatively low ceiling. He's not the freak athlete that some of his counterparts are at shooting guard. If the Wizards are choosing between Robinson and guys like Zhaire Smith and Lonnie Walker IV, they could view the latter two as more enticing because of their potential. Robinson would represent a safer pick while others could pay off big-time and have a greater impact on the franchise in the long-term.

Best highlight video:

More draft prospect profiles:

Kevin Knox, PF, Kentucky

Miles Bridges, SF, Michigan State

Robert Williams, PF/C, Texas A&M

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG, Kentucky

Zhaire Smith, SG, Texas Tech

Landry Shamet, PG/SG, Wichita State

Gary Trent, Jr., SG, Duke

Lonnie Walker IV, SG, Miami

Anfernee Simons, PG/SG, IMG Academy

Khyri Thomas, SG, Creighton

Chandler Hutchison, SG/SF, Boise State

Kevin Huerter, SG, Maryland

Mitchell Robinson, C, Western Kentucky

Troy Brown, SG/SF, Oregon

Donte DiVincenzo, SG, Villanova

Moritz Wagner, PF/C, Michigan

Aaron Holiday, PG, UCLA

Keita Bates-Diop, SF, Ohio State

For more on the NBA Draft, check out our latest episode of the Wizards Tipoff podcast:

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