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Falcons' Ryan closing regular season on hot streak

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Falcons' Ryan closing regular season on hot streak

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons disagree with the idea they have little to play for in Sunday's final regular-season game against Tampa Bay.

The Falcons (13-2) have home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs, and a big goal this week is for Ryan to carry his hot streak into the postseason.

Ryan threw seven touchdown passes with no interceptions the past two weeks while completing 80 percent of his passes. He was selected to the Pro Bowl on Wednesday.

Coach Mike Smith said that ranks as the fifth-year quarterback's best back-to-back games.

Center Todd McClure said this is the perfect time for Ryan to be peaking.

``You look the past few years at teams that have had success in the playoffs, the quarterback has gotten hot at the right time,'' McClure said. ``Our quarterback definitely is hot and we've got to keep him that way.''

Ryan has completed 69 percent of his passes this season. Only San Francisco's Alex Smith, who has played in only nine games, has a higher completion rate, according to STATS LLC.

Ryan's franchise-record 4,481 yards passing ranks fifth in the NFL, and he's also fifth with 31 touchdown passes and his 100.2 quarterback rating.

Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano said Ryan deserves to be mentioned with the league's top quarterbacks.

``I think he's in the elite status,'' Schiano said. ``I think he's at that level with the kind of field command he has and the way he directs the operation. To me, there are a lot of guys who have big arms and guys who are mobile and all that, but it's the way they lead and the command they have over their offense which makes them elite.''

The best news for the Falcons is Ryan is gaining momentum for the postseason. He completed 23 of 28 passes for 270 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 34-0 rout of the New York Giants two weeks ago. He completed 25 of 32 passes for 279 yards with four touchdowns and no picks in last week's 31-18 win at Detroit.

Ryan's rating in each game was 142.6. Smith said he hasn't seen the quarterback play better in consecutive weeks.

``The numbers I think will back that up in terms of quarterback rating and the passing yardage but really it's about running the offense and our offensive team,'' Smith said after Wednesday's practice.

``He's done a really good job with good plays at the right time and he's got us out of some bad plays. He's looked very comfortable in the pocket and going through his progressions and getting the ball to the guy we need to get it to most of the time.''

McClure said Ryan's mastery of the offense and confidence in his skills show in his performance.

``He's learned the game better,'' McClure said. ``He's learned our offense. Now he's just confident with where everybody is on the field. He knows where everybody is at any given moment. Right now he's making all the throws and that's why he's playing really well.''

Ryan, who will be joined by tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide receiver Julio Jones in the Pro Bowl. said improved consistency has boosted his confidence.

``I feel like my confidence the entire year has been as high as it's ever been,'' he said. ``I've felt good each week. One of the things I've always strived for is consistency. I try to be consistent week in and week out. I think I've been better with that the last couple of weeks and really the entire year.''

This is the second time in three years the Falcons will be the NFC's top seed in the playoffs. They were 13-3 in 2010, but lost to Green Bay in the playoffs.

Atlanta lost to the Giants in the first round of the playoffs last season, leaving Ryan 0-3 in the postseason.

Ryan said this team is more mature and better prepared for the playoffs.

``Probably the biggest difference with where we're at now and a couple years ago is the maturity of the football team,'' Ryan said.

``I think at this point everybody understands we've put ourselves in good position but we still have a lot of work to do. Nobody is content with where we're at and I think that's a little bit different than where we've been in the past.''

NOTES: S William Moore, who has missed three games with a hamstring injury, was held out again Wednesday and likely will miss Sunday's game, according to Smith. ``I would like for Williams to be ready to go but the doctors have got to make that determination,'' Smith said. WR Roddy White (knee), CB Christopher Owens (hamstring) and DE Cliff Matthews (hamstring) also missed practice, while DT Jonathan Babineaux (ribs) and DT Corey Peters (knee) were limited. ... WR Kevin Cone was placed on injured reserve to clear a spot for OL Joe Hawley, who returned last week from a four-game suspension after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance.

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Brooks Orpik's time in Washington may not be over after all

Brooks Orpik's time in Washington may not be over after all

Friday's trade with the Colorado Avalanche seemed to mark the end of Brooks Orpik's time with the Washington Capitals. But that may not actually be the case.

Trading away Orpik also meant trading away his $5.5 million cap hit. That is not an insignificant amount of money especially for a team trying to re-sign defenseman John Carlson to a big-money contract.

But Orpik will not be playing out the final year of his contract in Colorado. The Avalanche placed Orpik on unconditional waivers Saturday for the purpose of a buyout, according to Sportsnet's Chris Johnston.

CapFriendly has the details of the buyout. The Avalanche will pay Orpik $3 million and take a cap hit of $2.5 million in the 2018-19 season and $1.5 million in the 2019-20 season.

So why would Colorado agree to take Orpik just to buy him out and take on dead cap space? Because by acquiring him, it lowered the cost of the Grubauer trade.

What this means for Brooks Orpik is that he will become a free agent, free to sign with anyone for the upcoming season. Including Washington.

For a 37-year-old defenseman who does not boast great mobility or speed, a $5.5 million cap hit was a bit too steep for the Caps who were very close to the cap ceiling last season and who need that extra money to re-sign their free agents. But the team did value Orpik's leadership and that could be especially important as young defensemen Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos continue developing plus prospects Jonas Siegenthaler, Lucas Johansen and Connor Hobbs all try to work themselves into contention for a spot on the NHL roster.

If Orpik does return, it will be a masterstroke for general manager Brian MacLellan. MacLellan freed up a lot of cap space to re-sign Carlson without having to buy out Orpik's contract, but could still possibly keep him on the roster at a much-reduced cost.

After a strong playoff performance, there may be other teams vying for Orpik's services next season. Getting traded to get bought out likely isn't a good feeling, but considering he just won a Stanley Cup in Washington, the defensive guru Todd Reirden is expected to be promoted to head coach and that re-signing with the Caps would mean not moving his family for what could very possibly and will very likely be the last contract of his NHL career, there are a lot of reasons why it would make sense for both the team and the player if Orpik stayed with the Caps.

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Need to Know: Tandler's Take—Jay Gruden know the pressure is on him in 2018

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Need to Know: Tandler's Take—Jay Gruden know the pressure is on him in 2018

Here is what you need to know on this Sunday, June 24, 32 days before the Washington Redskins start training camp.  

The heat is on Jay Gruden

Jay Gruden knows that his Redskins need to win in 2018.

“This isn’t a two- or three-year process,” he said last week. “This is a one-year process and we have got to win right away.” 

Jay Gruden gave this answer to a question about Alex Smith, but his words should resonate with the whole team. He’s right. This is no longer a rebuilding team. It’s time for this team to get it together and make a playoff run. 

That puts the pressure on Gruden. 

This is his fifth year as coach of the Redskins. He is well beyond the point where he can credibly point a finger of blame at his predecessor for any problems that are lingering. Only five players who were around in 2013, Mike Shanahan’s last year in Washington. It’s Gruden’s show now. 

His tenure is now the longest for a Redskins head coach since Norv Turner made it nearly seven years, from 1994 through 13 games into the 2000 season. His 49-59-1 run with the Redskins spanned three owners in Jack Kent Cooke, John Kent Cooke, and Dan Snyder. 

It should be noted that Turner’s third and fourth years at the helm closely resembled Gruden’s past two years. Turner’s team went 9-7 in 1996 and 8-7-1 the next year, narrowly missing the playoffs both years. That looks a lot like Gruden’s 8-7-1 and 7-9 records over the past two years. 

Gruden does not want this year’s team to resemble the 1998 Redskins. Turner’s fifth team started out 0-7 before winning four of their last five to finish 6-10. 

Turner kept his job in part because of the team’s uncertain ownership situation after the elder Cooke passed away in 1997. Gruden will not have a similar set of circumstances to help him out if he needs a lifeline in January. 

Gruden wants his fifth year to turn out more like Turner’s sixth season. That team went 10-6, topped the NFC East standings and won a playoff game. 

To get there, he needs a lot of his decisions to go right. While the trade for Smith was not his call, every indication is that he was on board with it. 

Last year, it was his decision to say no, thanks to Wade Phillips, who wanted to be his defensive coordinator and promote Greg Manusky into the job. The results were mixed as the Redskins were sixth in pass defense DVOA but 29thagainst the run. It was viewed as a marginal improvement on defense but the unit still seeme to be more of a liability than an asset. 

This year, the Redskins re-signed inside linebackers Zach Brown and Mason Foster and added defensive lineman Daron Payne with their first-round pick after spending their first-round pick on DE Jonathan Allen in 2017. There will be no excuses for Manusky and, by extension, Gruden if the defense does not improve. 

Joe Barry, Manusky’s predecessor who also was hired by Gruden when Phillips was an option, was out after two years of failing to significantly improve the defense. Any reasonable analysis would have to conclude that Barry did not get an infusion of talent anywhere approaching what Manusky has received in his two seasons. Manusky is getting a second year but he probably won’t get a third if the defense is still considered to be an impediment to the team’s progress. 

And if Manusky has to go, you have to wonder if Gruden will get a chance to hire a third defensive coordinator. 

I’m not sure if there is a certain number of games that the Redskins have to win for Gruden to return in 2019. It feels like he would not survive a 6-10 season or maybe not even another 7-9 finish. On the other end of the spectrum, making the playoffs and winning a game when they get there would certainly punch his ticket for a sixth season. 

Anything in between would leave Gruden in some jeopardy and the call would come down to the vague “moving in the right direction” criteria. 

There are some holes on this team, to be sure. But every team has some and the ones that are well coached figure out how to overcome them. The pressure will be on Gruden to best utilize their strengths and minimize any damage brought about by the weaker points. 

From his statement, it’s apparent that he is well aware of that. 

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

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Timeline  

Days until:

—Training camp starts (7/26) 32
—Preseason opener @ Patriots (8/9) 46
—Roster cut to 53 (9/1) 60

The Redskins last played a game 175 days ago. They will open the 2018 NFL season at the Cardinals in 77 days. 

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