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Falcons savor NFL's last perfect record during bye

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Falcons savor NFL's last perfect record during bye

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) Then there was one.

The Atlanta Falcons (6-0) woke up Monday as the NFL's last unbeaten team, the distinction all to themselves after Green Bay knocked off Houston the night before. They'll be able to savor their status, too, with a bye coming up and nothing on the schedule the rest of the week.

Coach Mike Smith broke with the way he's done things in previous years, deciding to give his players the entire week off rather than holding a couple of practices. Several dozen players came in to the training complex the day after a 23-20 victory over Oakland, but that was merely to get treatment and maybe look at a little film.

Otherwise, they're free to go.

See you next Monday.

``It's very important for us - the players and the coaches - to disconnect a little bit,'' Smith said.

The decision had nothing to do with the Falcons' glittering record. The coach graphed out this schedule back in April when he saw where the bye week fell, essentially right in the middle of the 20-week schedule (counting the four preseason games).

``I try to let the guys know well in advance what the schedule is going to be,'' Smith said. ``This is just the way we wanted to approach it this year. You don't get a whole lot out of those two practices during the bye week. It's like pulling teeth. It's like the last day before Christmas vacation.''

The Falcons are off to the best start in franchise history and already hold a commanding lead in the NFC South - 3 1/2 games ahead of Tampa Bay, 4 1/2 ahead of both defending division champion New Orleans and Carolina.

But Smith doesn't want his team thinking about loftier goals, such as home-field advantage throughout the playoffs or even winning the franchise's first Super Bowl championship, although being the last team to lose in any given season is often a good title omen.

There's still plenty of work to do, starting with the running game.

Atlanta has put much more emphasis on moving the ball through the air, wanting to take advantage of myriad weapons (quarterback Matt Ryan, tight end Tony Gonzalez, receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones). Nothing wrong with that decision, but spreading things out seems to have taken a toll on the once-dominant ground attack led by Michael Turner.

Also, the Falcons have struggled to prevent other teams from running, a double-whammy that Smith plans to address with his assistants even while the players are enjoying their down time.

``We've got to be consistent in everything we do,'' he said. ``We haven't run the ball consistently, and we're not stopping the run. Those two things stand out the most.''

The Falcons are averaging just 86.5 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 25th in the league, and they struggled in short-yardage situations against the Raiders. For instance, after John Abraham caused a fumble and Ray Edwards returned it to the Oakland 2, Atlanta was forced to settle for a field goal. After an incomplete pass, Turner was stopped short of the end zone and Jason Snelling was thrown for a 2-yard loss on third down, with the ball no more than a foot from the goal line.

Just as troubling, the Falcons surrendered 149 yards rushing to the Raiders, who came in averaging a league-worst 60.8 per game. Atlanta is surrendering 143.8 overall, a dismal 27th in the league rankings.

``We had a bunch of missed tackles - about twice as many as we expect in a normal game,'' Smith said. ``That lent itself to the explosive plays we saw from the Raiders. Most of the time in those situations, it's not great execution by the offense. The majority of time, it's missed assignments and missed tackles.''

One thing Smith isn't concerned about: winning three straight close games, by a total of 12 points, against teams that wouldn't be considered among the NFL elite.

The Falcons rallied to beat Carolina (1-4) on Matt Bryant's field goal with 5 seconds remaining, and needed another clutch kick from Bryant - a 55-yarder with 1 second left - to get by the Raiders (1-4). In between, Atlanta edged the Redskins (3-3) after knocking Robert Griffin III out of the game with a concussion.

Smith and his players aren't fretting over style points.

They only care about scoring more points.

``Bottom line, we just need to keep winning,'' said Ryan, who bounced back from three first-half interceptions against Oakland to complete five passes on the final drive of the game, setting up Bryant's field goal. ``Certainly we all have the mindset that we need improve, and we do. Everybody needs to take some time on the bye week and evaluate themselves, self-scout a little bit, and determine areas where we need to get better.''

But, he quickly added, ``At this point in the NFL regular season, it's all about getting wins. We've done a good job of that so far.''

The way things are going, the Falcons sort of hate to take a week off. Still, given what awaits them after the break - a trip to Philadelphia to face Michael Vick and the Eagles, followed by a prime-time game at home against the Dallas Cowboys - this is a good time to pause.

``We certainly wish we could keep playing, but a bye week is always good for a ballclub,'' White said. ``We're going to relax, get healthy and prepare for two tough weeks of football.''

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

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Michigan's Moritz Wagner could be Wizards' solution for a stretch-five

Michigan's Moritz Wagner could be Wizards' solution for a stretch-five

The pre-draft workout process can be an exhausting journey for players, with so many flights, hotel rooms and NBA arenas that they can all blend in together. Michigan big man Moritz Wagner, though, may have felt a sense of comfort in Washington for his pre-draft workout for the Wizards on Wednesday.

It was just over a year ago that his Michigan Wolverines cut down the nets at Capital One Arena as champions of the Big Ten conference.

"It was good memories, man. Never gets old," he said while glancing around the stadium.

Wagner, 21, will be seeing a lot more of Capital One Arena once he joins the NBA ranks and it is conceivable he ends up in Washington. They hold the 15th pick in the first round and the 44th pick in the second round and Wagner could be within their reach.

Wagner had an impressive workout in Washington and could provide what the Wizards need. He is a big, mobile and can spread the floor. Wagner was terrific at stepping out to hit threes off pick-and-rolls at Michigan and that ability would work well with Wizards All-Star point guard John Wall.

Wagner measured in at just under 7-feet at this month's NBA Combine, fifth-tallest among those who attended. He averaged 14.6 points as a junior this past season and made 39.4 percent of his threes on 4.1 attempts per game.

With three years of college experience and an NBA-ready jumper, Wagner believes he can step right in and help the Wizards.

"I think what we did at Michigan, sharing the ball and playing as a team, very organized basketball, that can help big-time," he said. "It's basically pro basketball I was playing on a different level."

As Wagner will tell you, he is very confident in his abilities. He is comfortable in his own skin and that includes openly discussing his faults. He feels good about his ability to score at the next level. Defense is where he needs to prove himself.

Despite his size, Wagner wasn't much of a rim protector in college. He averaged just a half-block a game as a junior. The Wizards need rim protection badly and he likely would not provide that.

Wagner, though, believes he can bring more to the table defensively than the numbers would suggest.

"I think I've been an offensive guy all of my life, but the more that you mature as a player, you understand that both sides are important. Without defense, you aren't going to play at any level," he said.

"I think the most important thing that I wasn't able to show in college is that I'm able to switch the ball-screen, especially with the way the league is going. Switch on everything and stay in front of guards as a big guy."

Wagner is from Germany and looks up to Mavs legend Dirk Nowitzki, who is entering his 21st season and will be in the Hall of Fame someday. Nowitzki's game has always been built around shooting and, though he developed into a decent shot-blocker in his prime, was never an elite rim protector.

Wagner hopes to follow in his footsteps playing a similar style.

"He was my MJ. He kind of shows you 'okay, this is possible and this is doable.' It's just basketball," Wagner said. "It gives you a lot of hope. It gives you a lot of belief and motivation."

Hear more from Wagner in his one-on-one interview with Chris Miller in our latest Wizards Tipoff podcast. His interview can also be found in the video above:

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Believe it or not, this isn't the first D.C. vs. Vegas postseason matchup

Believe it or not, this isn't the first D.C. vs. Vegas postseason matchup

In what is perhaps the most unexpected Stanley Cup Final pairing in recent memory, the Washington Capitals and the Las Vegas Golden Knights are going to make history this year.

Either it is going to be the first expansion team to win a title in their first season, or it will be a team looking to end a 27-year title drought for one of the biggest cities in the United States.

But what it will not be is the first D.C. vs. Vegas postseason matchup.

Going even farther back than the Capitals last Stanley Cup appearance (1998), the Georgetown Hoyas and UNLV Rebels met in the 1991 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Sin City took the first, and up until now, the only postseason bout between these two cities. The Larry Johnson-led University of Las Vegas squad powered right past the Hoyas in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament.

[D.C. sports and Second Rounds, I know right?]

Coming fresh off the NCAA title in 1990, UNLV waltzed right to the Final Four before meeting their demise against Duke. It also ended up being the last game for Dikembe Mutombo in a Georgetown uniform.

While in all likely-hood this will not be the final game/ series for Alex Ovechkin rocking the red, it may be his last and only chance for him to play this far into a postseason.

In the past two seasons, Vegas has gone from zero professional teams to having a Stanley Cup contender, a WNBA franchise, and lined up to take over the Oakland Raiders in 2020. 

Now time for the Golden Knights' Cinderella story to come up a little bit short. 

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