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Falcons falter, then rally past Seahawks 30-28

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Falcons falter, then rally past Seahawks 30-28

ATLANTA (AP) Matt Ryan won't have to answer that question anymore.

Neither will Tony Gonzalez.

They're both playoff winners.

Finally.

Ryan got over the postseason hump in his fifth season, guiding the Atlanta Falcons to an improbable comeback in the final half-minute for a 30-28 victory over the gritty Seattle Seahawks in an NFC divisional game Sunday.

If Ryan was feeling relief, imagine what was going through Gonzalez's mind. The 16-year veteran, in what is likely the final season of a Hall of Fame career, removed the only blotch from his brilliant record with his first playoff win.

No wonder he broke down in tears when it was over.

``I've cried after a loss. But never a win,'' said Gonzalez, who had been 0-5 in the postseason. ``I thought it was over. Sixteen years. Six playoff games. I was like, `Here we go again.' Especially with that big lead. I thought it just wasn't meant to be.''

The Falcons (14-3) led 20-0 at halftime, and were still up 27-7 going to the fourth quarter. No team had ever blown such a daunting lead in the final period of a playoff game. But the Seahawks, led by Russell Wilson, nearly pulled off a historic win.

Wilson passed for two touchdowns and ran for another, then led a drive that looked like the game winner. He completed three passes for 50 yards, the last of them a short throw to Marshawn Lynch that the bruising runner took all the way to the Falcons 3. The rookie quarterback made it all possible with his legs, spinning away from blitzing linebacker Sean Weatherspoon to give himself extra time to throw.

On the next play, after the rattled Falcons were penalized for too many players on the field, Lynch powered over from the 2 to give the Seahawks (12-6) their first lead of the day, 28-27 with 31 seconds remaining.

The Falcons could've packed it in right there, but Ryan and Gonzalez went back to work.

First, Ryan hit a deep pass to Harry Douglas right in front of the Atlanta bench, a 22-yard completion to midfield. Then, with one timeout remaining, Ryan went to Gonzalez on a 19-yard throw over the middle. The Falcons quickly stopped the clock again, and Matt Bryant connected on a 49-yard field goal with 8 seconds left for the victory.

Atlanta will host the NFC championship game for the first time next Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, another team that features a mobile quarterback. The defense hopes that facing Wilson will help prepare for Colin Kaepernick, who passed for 263 yards and rushed for 181 - a playoff record for a quarterback - in a 45-31 victory over Green Bay.

``Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick are mobile quarterbacks who throw the ball at extremely accurate levels,'' Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said. ``We can use this game as a cheat sheet to prepare for next week.''

The Falcons overcame their reputation for choking in the playoffs, winning their first postseason game since the 2004 season.

``Nobody flinched,'' Ryan said. ``We just kept battling, kept doing what we do. That's been the makeup of our team all season.''

Ryan came into the game with an 0-3 mark in the playoffs, including a crushing loss to Green Bay two years ago when the Falcons were in the same position, the NFC's top-seeded team with home-field advantage in the playoffs.

Now, he'll no longer be asked why he can't win in the playoffs.

``That's going to be nice,'' Ryan said with a smile. ``But our goal is not to win one playoff game. Our goals are still in front of us.''

Bryant made his third game-winning kick of the season. But he'd never made one like this, with so much on the line.

``When they scored their touchdown, I walked down (the sideline),'' he said. ``I told the offensive line, I told Matt (Ryan), I told all the receivers, `We've done this before.'''

Wilson finished with 385 yards passing and led the Seahawks in rushing with 60 yards on seven carries, an even better performance than the one that carried Seattle to an opening-round victory over Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins.

Not quite enough this time.

``We had high, high hopes for the rest of the season,'' Wilson said. ``When the game was over, I was very disappointed. But walking back into the tunnel, I got so excited about next year. The resilience we showed was unbelievable.''

A botched squib kick by the Falcons gave Seattle the ball at its own 46 and a chance at one more comeback. But Wilson threw a short pass that only picked up 6 yards, forcing a desperation heave into the end zone on the final play.

Falcons receiver Julio Jones, who had practiced for just such a situation during the week, went in on defense and leaped up to make the interception, leaving Atlanta one win away from the second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.

Ryan had a couple of interceptions, but threw three touchdown passes, tying a Falcons playoff record. He completed 24 of 35 for 250 yards - the first time he's eclipsed 200 yards in the postseason.

The scoring passes were 1-yarder to Gonzalez, who made a leaping grab in the back of the end zone; a 47-yarder to Roddy White that stretched the lead to 20-0 late in the second quarter; and a 5-yarder to Jason Snelling, a quick throw after a fake pitch to Jones, gave the Falcons a seemingly comfortable edge late in the third period.

Wilson took over from there, running 1 yard for a touchdown to make it 27-14, then going to Zach Miller on a 3-yard touchdown pass that closed the gap to 27-21. Ryan's second interception, an ill-advised deep throw into double coverage, helped keep the Seahawks alive.

But the Seahawks will likely spend the offseason kicking themselves for that last Falcons' drive, and for squandering two scoring chances in the first half.

On fourth-and-1 at the Atlanta 11, Seattle passed on a field goal and a chance to give the ball to Lynch, their beast of a back. Fullback Michael Robinson was stuffed for a 1-yard loss by safety William Moore.

With the clock winding down before halftime, Seattle used all its timeouts and wound up regretting it when Wilson was sacked by Jonathan Babineaux at the Atlanta 20. Time ran out before the Seahawks could get off another play, sending Atlanta to the locker room still up by 20.

Turns out, the game was just getting started.

NOTES: The Falcons played the second half without defensive end John Abraham, who re-injured his right ankle. No word whether he'll be able to play next week. ... Lynch was held to 46 yards on 16 carries. ... Atlanta rushed for a season-high 167 yards behind Michael Turner (98) and Jacquizz Rodgers (64).

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Oshie is out, Smith-Pelly is in for Game 5: What that means for the Caps’ offense

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Oshie is out, Smith-Pelly is in for Game 5: What that means for the Caps’ offense

ARLINGTON – The Capitals forward lines will look very different when they take the ice for Game 5 against the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday. T.J. Oshie will be out after suffering an upper-body injury late in Game 4 while Devante Smith-Pelly, who was called up from the Hershey Bears on Friday, will be in.

“I do expect him to go right into the lineup,” head coach Todd Reirden said.

Smith-Pelly was one of the team’s playoff heroes in its 2018 Stanley Cup run, scoring seven goals in 24 games. After a rocky regular season, he was sent down to Hershey prior to the NHL trade deadline where he has scored six goals and eight assists in 20 games.

“To get his game back to where it was last year around this time, it was important for him to play a lot of minutes,” Reirden said. “He went down to Hershey, and he played a lot of minutes, helped them have success, helped them get into the playoffs. When an injury and a chance for him to step into our lineup was available, then we were going to recall him. That's been our plan all along. Now he'll get that opportunity."

Whether the Caps are getting playoff Smith-Pelly or the player who struggled this season remains to be seen, but his pending return seems to have provided a boost to the locker room.

“He was with us all the way last year, so that’s huge,” Chandler Stephenson said. “He knows playoff hockey.”

“He can step up in the important moments,” Jakub Vrana said. “He showed it last year and we’re happy to have him back.”

Getting that boost from Smith-Pelly is important for the team after losing one of its leaders and locker room personalities in Oshie.

Reirden said Oshie was still meeting with doctors and could not give a definitive timeline yet. He did say, however, that Oshie was out indefinitely and would not be playing Saturday.

"He's certainly, I feel, one of the top leaders in the entire league,” Reirden said. “Not just with how he plays, who he is as a human being on the ice, off the ice, role model. You can go on a lot of different ways with the type of person that T.J. Oshie is and not having him around your players is not great. That loss will be felt.”

The Hurricanes certainly will not be crying over the loss of Oshie, however, and it falls now on Reirden to adjust. That will be no easy task.

The Caps have been held to one goal in the past two games, have gotten virtually no secondary scoring in the first four games of the series and now will be without the team’s second-leading goal scorer from the regular season.

“It has been top heavy,” Reirden said of the offense. “Just even 5-on-5 scoring is not where we need it to be and particularly, obviously, the last two games. We've got to find ways to generate offense. It's always tougher to create in the playoffs. You know, teams don't give up quite as much on the rush. They're a lot more committed to not giving up odd-man rushes to the opposition. We've got to find a way to get in on the forecheck more and impose a little bit more of a physical style of play on their defense and that comes with our puck management and putting pucks in behind them. Then when we have space, we've got to use it.”

Friday’s practice was an optional skate meaning we did not get to see any lines or how Reirden may be planning to shift the offense. With Oshie out, this could give Reirden an opportunity to reunite the Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson line that was so effective in last year’s postseason. Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly and Carl Hagelin, meanwhile, seem like the most likely candidates to move into a top-six role in Oshie’s absence.

Washington struggled immensely trying to replace a top-six right wing early in the season when Tom Wilson missed 16 games due to a suspension. Reirden tried to plug in Connolly, Chandler Stephenson and Dmitrij Jaskin, among others. Nothing seemed to work until Wilson returned.

The addition of Hagelin at the trade deadline means Washington is dealing with more offensive depth now than when Wilson was out. Plus, past experiences both from this season’s multiple injuries and last postseason give the team confidence that it can overcome any loss to the roster.

“We've been in situations where we've lost one of our leaders,” Vrana said. “We have a pretty good group of players here and anybody can fill-in and bring their A-games to the game."

“I think just a handful of games where we actually had our actual opening day roster that we wanted to have in front of us,” Reirden said. “It's something we've gone through a lot this year. We've done a good job, our team has of stepping up in those situations and taking advantage of the opportunity.”

Smith-Pelly will likely slot into the bottom-six upon his return to the lineup. Reirden acknowledged it had been a while since Smith-Pelly had played in the NHL and said he would ease him back in. But he is still expecting him to make a big impact, regardless of what line he plays on.

Reirden hopes that Smith-Pelly’s playing style can help improve the team in some of the areas it has struggled in the past two games.

"I don't think we've been as physical on our forecheck as we could have hoped after four games of evaluating,” Reirden said. “Some of it is that we're not getting in enough to forecheck and when we are, we haven't been as physical as maybe we have been in past series in a prior time. This is an impact that [Smith-Pelly] can have. They're a high shot-volume team as we talk about, so in D-zone coverage he's an excellent shot-blocker, pays the price that way. And when things get more difficult, he seems to relish in that and step up to the plate and obviously delivered some big goals for us. Those are some things we're looking for.”

But Washington’s success will not be dependent solely on the addition of Smith-Pelly. The rest of the forwards know they have to step up as well.

“I haven’t found the net lately, I know that,” Vrana said who has yet to score this series. “I’ve been working on it in today’s practice and tomorrow is a new game. Come with a positive mind and go period by period and focus on winning the game.”

“I think there's another level from everybody,” Reirden said. “Some guys have played better than others, but I don't think we're at our peak by any means yet.”

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Craig Kimbrel could help any NL East contender solve a division-wide problem

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Craig Kimbrel could help any NL East contender solve a division-wide problem

WASHINGTON --  Progressively, the lines of desperation and declined price will have to intersect.

At least it would seem. Craig Kimbrel’s demands reportedly are receding during his extended unemployment. The needs of contenders in the National League East’s rock fight continue to increase day by day. The sides should be on a path to merge. Right?

Take this week. 

Atlanta announced closer Arodys Vizcaino underwent right shoulder surgery. He’s out for the season. This the day after his would-be replacement, A.J. Minter, gave up three earned runs in ⅔ of an inning. Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos acknowledged he heard the chants from Braves fans Tuesday night demanding he sign Kimbrel.

Philadelphia placed reliever David Robertson on the 10-day injured list because of a flexor strain (initially labeled elbow soreness). It used Hector Neris to close Wednesday afternoon. He entered with two runners on base. Neris struck out the first batter, gave up a soft single, hit Wilson Ramos to load the bases, then struck Keon Broxton to end the game. That’s an interesting path to the end.

The Mets are living similar to the Nationals. They have a closer -- Edwin Diaz -- who can be relied on. It’s getting to him which has been such a challenge. Seth Lugo (5.06 ERA), Jeurys Familia (6.48) and Robert Gsellman (3.48) are often dispatched to drag New York to the ninth inning.

All five members of the National League East are in the bottom half of bullpen ERA entering play Friday. Philadelphia is 15th, Atlanta is 22nd, Miami is 24th, New York is 27th and Washington remains last by a wide margin -- almost a run-and-a-half worse than 29th-ranked Baltimore.

The Nationals’ bullpen toiling around with the have nots is endangering the team’s season as a whole, the $190 million payroll investment, the demands of the Lerner family to be better than first-round playoff exits. But, few paths are available to fix it without relinquishing a commodity -- whether human or financial.

Multiple reports claim Kimbrel’s asking price has come down in both years and cash. It may never reach a point of intersection with the Nationals if team ownership remains steadfast against surpassing the competitive balance tax threshold for the third consecutive year. Passing the $206 million roster mark would result in a 50 percent tax on every dollar spent from there on. 

Kimbrel would also cost the Nationals a compensation draft pick and international draft money because he declined a qualifying off from Boston. In all, four layers of cost exist around Kimbrel: salary, luxury tax, a draft pick and international money.

Financial stances can change when circumstances do. Though, the Nationals’ leverage with Kimbrel has evaporated. Owning the league’s worst bullpen is not a promising negotiation point for a team preferring to restrict this final portion of spending. Imagine their pitch: “We’re desperate for your services, but don’t want to spend much.” 

Whichever lagging bullpen signs Kimbrel still needs to subsist until he is ready. In Washington’s case, it continues to hunt for solutions ahead of a six-game road trip which starts Friday in Miami. Trevor Rosenthal’s lost early season, a better way to match up with left-handed hitters, help in the middle and a way to use closer Sean Doolittle less -- he’s on pace for 86 appearances -- are all on the docket. 

“Things haven’t gone the way we envisioned them coming out of camp,” Doolittle said this week. “Part of being a reliever -- you don’t get to this level without having taken some lumps; without having taken some punches. So guys, they might be in the jungle a little bit right now, but they know how to get through this. We’re working on it. Guys are talking to each other about things they can do, whether it’s pitch selection or mechanics or straight up execution to try to get things smoothed out. 

“We’re in it as a group. As a reliever, you can’t have an ego. You have to be ready for whatever the team needs, whatever the group needs and be ready to pick your teammate up.”

Doolittle’s words could have come from the leader of any NL East bullpen. Four contenders with the same problem populate the division. One big name looms. Day by day, the tussle for a fix and leverage goes on. 

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