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Falcons must address flaws for longer playoff run

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Falcons must address flaws for longer playoff run

ATLANTA (AP) The Atlanta Falcons are tied for the best record in the NFL. They have a comfortable lead in their division. They've already clinched another winning season.

Nothing much to complain about, right?

Not exactly.

For a team that has built such a lofty mark, the NFC-leading Falcons (9-1) had plenty of high-profile issues to deal with Monday coming off an ugly win over Arizona. Like a feeble running game, a defense that keeps giving up big running plays, injuries to Asante Samuel and Julio Jones, plus a four-game suspension for backup center Joe Hawley.

Then there was Matt Ryan's career-high five interceptions, though Falcons fans hope that was just an aberration rather than another cause for concern.

``We're very, very fortunate,'' coach Mike Smith acknowledged. ``You've just got to keep fighting. It's amazing. The NFL is so close.''

The league announced Hawley's penalty after he tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance, yet another distraction for a team that must address its trouble spots to avoid a repeat of the one-and-done playoff troubles of recent years.

Even so, Smith focused on the positive side of winning a game that was closer than expected.

``We're very resilient,'' he said. ``There was never any doubt in anyone's minds that we would not get the result we wanted if we just kept working at it.''

The Falcons will continue to work on running the ball, a strong point in years past but now the most obvious weakness. The Falcons worked on it a lot in practice last week after a dismal performance at New Orleans, but there wasn't significant improvement against the Cardinals.

Michael Turner carried 15 times for 46 yards and was booed several times by the home crowd. Change-of-pace back Jacquizz Rodgers was held to 16 yards on five carries. Jason Snelling was thrown for a 1-yard loss on his only handoff, when the Falcons merely needed about a foot on a third-down play in the third quarter.

Overall, the Falcons managed just 58 yards on the ground, dropping their season average to 89.2 per game as they rapidly sink toward the bottom of the league rankings. They are down more than 25 yards a game from last year's average.

There were some encouraging signs in the fourth quarter.

With Atlanta trailing 19-16, Ryan guided the offense down the field through the air, setting up first-and-goal at the Arizona 1. Those sort of short-yardage situations have given the Falcons all sorts of problems, but Turner rumbled into the end zone standing for the winning score with 6:40 remaining.

``You've got get back on the horse when you're thrown off it,'' Smith said.

Then, after the Cardinals were stopped on downs, the Falcons managed to run out the final 3:06 to preserve the 23-19 victory. Turner took a sweep around right end for 7 yards and Rodgers converted on third-and-2, speeding around left end for a 6-yard gain that finished off Arizona.

``Being able to run the ball on that last drive to run out the clock was huge,'' Ryan said.

The Cardinals, who benched quarter John Skelton in the second quarter and went with rookie Ryan Lindley, are an abysmal offensive team. They managed just 178 yards and scored 13 points off Ryan's turnovers. Even so, the Atlanta defense gave up two long runs to LaRod Stephens-Howling, who broke off gains of 52 and 40 yards, setting up a couple of field goals.

``Both of those plays, we missed a tackle,'' Smith said. ``We've just got to get better at cleaning up some things in our run defense.''

If Atlanta had been facing a more prolific offense - in other words, just about anybody else in the NFL - those plays could have changed the outcome. Reducing those breakdowns will be a key on Sunday, when the Falcons travel to Tampa Bay to face the streaking Buccaneers and rookie sensation Doug Martin, who already has rushed for 1,000 yards.

``Their rookie running back has had some really explosive games,'' Smith said. ``It will be a challenge for us.''

The defense clearly misses linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who sat out his third straight game with an ankle injury. He's not the only player hurting, either.

Samuel, the team's best coverage player, went out in the first half with an injured right shoulder after delivering a hit to Larry Fitzgerald. Jones, who pairs with Roddy White to give Atlanta one of the league's most dangerous receiver tandems, hobbled off in the second half after reinjuring his ailing right ankle. Defensive tackle Peria Jerry (thigh injury) also came out.

Smith never discusses the specifics of injuries on Monday, but he doesn't think any of those three will miss significant time. Also, he is confident that Weatherspoon will be back at practice this week, giving him a good chance to play against Tampa Bay (6-4), which has won five of six to climb into playoff contention.

Even Smith made a big mistake against the Cardinals, mistakenly throwing his challenge flag on an Atlanta fumble that would've been subject to review anyway. Under the rules, he was assessed a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and the play was not reviewed, costing the Falcons a chance to get the ball back.

``That's totally on me,'' Smith said.

Ryan was feeling the same way about his performance.

He became the first quarterback since Bart Starr in 1967 to win a game while throwing five interceptions and no touchdowns, though Ryan was quick to note ``that's good company to be in.'' He had never thrown more than three picks in a game, and his quarterback rating of 40.5 was the second-lowest of his career, surpassed only by his second game as a pro in 2008.

``As a quarterback, you don't want to ever have those kind of games. But they happen,'' Ryan said. ``It's how you respond to it. I think it says a lot about our football team. I made the mistakes I did, but I'm surrounded by 52 other guys who show up and make plays. I'm fortunate to have those guys around me.''

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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Stanley Cup Final 2018: Who could win the Conn Smythe Trophy?

Stanley Cup Final 2018: Who could win the Conn Smythe Trophy?

The Stanley Cup is not the only trophy that will be awarded at the end of the Stanley Cup Final series between the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights. The Conn Smythe will also be given to the player deemed the most valuable to his team during the playoffs.

Who will that player be?

It's not hard to figure out who the frontrunner is right now. Marc-Andre Fleury hasn't just been the best goalie in the playoffs, he's been the best player with a dominant postseason in which he has posted a .947 save percentage and four shutouts. He has been so dominant, he could win it even if Vegas loses the series.

See the top contenders for the Conn Smythe heading into the Stanley Cup Final here.

The last player from the losing team to win the Conn Smythe was Jean-Sebastian Giguere from the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2003.

But what about the Caps?

Alex Ovechkin is the leader of Washington and has been absolutely dominant throughout the postseason. He even scored the series-clinching goal in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Surprisingly, however, Ovechkin does not lead the team in points through the playoffs. Evgeny Kuznetsov holds that edge with 24 points to Ovechkin's 22.

Will their offensive dominance propel them to win the Cup and the Conn Smythe? Will a different player emerge as the hero of the series?

See the top contenders for the Conn Smythe heading into the Stanley Cup Final here.

MORE CAPITALS PLAYOFF NEWS:

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Need to Know: A closer look at Alex Smith's contract with the Redskins

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Associated Press

Need to Know: A closer look at Alex Smith's contract with the Redskins

Here is what you need to know on this Saturday, May 26, 17 days before the Washington Redskins start minicamp.  

Note: I am vacationing in the Outer Banks this week. In this space, I’ll be presenting some of the most popular posts of the last few months. I hope you enjoy these “best of” presentations and I’ll see you folks when I get back. 

Contract makes Alex Smith a Redskins for at least three seasons

This post was originally published on March 19. 

When the Redskins traded for Alex Smith on January 30, news also broke that he had agreed to a four-year extension with Washington in addition to the one year left on his contract with the Chiefs. While we got some top-line numbers on the deal, we have gone since then without any details. 

Until now. 

The details show a deal that has a slightly higher cap hit in 2018 than was on his original Chiefs contract and the numbers rise gradually over the life of the deal, which runs through 2022. 

Smith got a $27 million signing bonus and his salaries for 2018 ($13 million) and 2019 ($15 million) also are fully guaranteed at signing making the total $55 million (information via Over the Cap, which got data from a report by Albert Breer). 

But there I another $16 million that is guaranteed for all practical purposes. On the fifth day of the 2019 league year, his 2020 salary of $16 million becomes fully guaranteed. He almost assuredly will get to the point where that money will become guaranteed since the Redskins are not going to cut him after one year having invested $55 million in him. So the total guarantees come to $71 million. 

His 2021 salary is $19 million and it goes up to $21 million in 2022. There have been reports of some incentives available to Smith but since we have no details we’ll set those aside for now. 

The cap hits on the contract are as follows: 

2018: $18.4 million
2019: $20.0 million
2020: $21.4 million
2021: $24.4 million
2022: $26.4 million

The Redskins can realistically move on from Smith after 2020. There would be net cap savings of $13 million in 2021 and $21 million in 2022. 

The first impression of the deal is that the Redskins did not move on from Kirk Cousins because they didn’t want to guarantee a lot of money to a quarterback. The total practical guarantee of $71 million is second only to Cousins’ $82.5 million. It should be noted that Cousins’ deal runs for three years and Smith’s contract is for five. 

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCSand follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCSand on Instagram @RichTandler