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Falcons say it's no big deal to face Michael Vick

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Falcons say it's no big deal to face Michael Vick

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) Michael Vick will always be a part of the Atlanta Falcons.

They were the team that drafted him No. 1 overall. They were the team he made hip and relevant in the NFL. They were the team he left in disarray with his hideous hobby.

But it's no longer a big deal to face their former quarterback.

The Falcons have moved on.

``There's probably only a handful of guys left here that played with Mike,'' said his successor as Atlanta's quarterback, Matt Ryan. ``I think we're probably a little bit beyond that at this point.''

Indeed, the Falcons have put the Vick era in the rearview mirror, quickly rebuilding from the mess he caused with an unprecedented run of success - at least in the regular season. They have strung together four straight winning records, three playoff appearances and a division title since No. 7 left town.

And now, heading into Sunday's game against Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles, the Falcons (6-0) are more focused on what the future might hold than what happened in the past. They are off to the franchise's best start ever, the only undefeated team left in the NFL and intent on settling for nothing less than Atlanta's first Super Bowl championship.

Center Todd McClure, who once snapped the ball to Vick and now does the same with Ryan, feels the team has recaptured that feeling of excitement, that feeling of importance it had with its previous quarterback.

Only this time, it's different.

``It's not based off one guy,'' McClure said. ``There's a buzz about this whole team. ``

The Vick-led Falcons sure had their moments. They were the first visiting team ever to win a playoff game at Green Bay's Lambeau Field. They reached the NFC championship game for only the second time in team history.

But that was viewed largely as a one-man show, a team that only went as far as wondrous quarterback could take it. When Vick thrived, the Falcons usually won. When he struggled, they almost always lost. It was a thrilling yet exhausting ride, a team that largely followed the ebbs and flows of a single, one-of-a-kind player.

Not anymore.

While Ryan has put himself on the cusp of being one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks, he's surrounded by plenty of weapons - deep threats Roddy White and Julio Jones, future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, bruising runner Michael Turner. The defense isn't too shabby, either. Ageless John Abraham keeps the heat on opposing quarterbacks, young Sean Weatherspoon has already developed into a top linebacker, and everyone in the secondary - from Asante Samuel to Thomas DeCoud - is getting a hand on the ball.

Which has made this latest meeting against Vick and the Eagles seem like just another game, just another step along the way to the ultimate goal.

``Just us against them,'' White said.

McClure, White and Abraham are among just five players remaining from Vick's time with the Falcons (the others are offensive tackle Tyson Clabo and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux). The massive turnover - not to mention a new coach (Mike Smith) and new general manager (Thomas Dimitroff) - has largely broken whatever hold Vick might've had on the team after he went to prison in 2007 for operating a dogfighting ring.

Besides, the Falcons have faced the Eagles every season since Vick signed with them in 2009. He was a backup for the initial meeting in Atlanta, and didn't play the following year in Philadelphia because of an injury. The Georgia Dome was filled with No. 7 jerseys when he returned last season for the first time as the Eagles' starter, but Ryan stole the show with four touchdowns passes in a 35-31 victory. Vick didn't even make to the end, wobbling off the field with a concussion late in the third quarter.

``Last year, going back to Atlanta, that was special. That added a little bit to the game,'' Vick said on a teleconference. ``But now, it's just two good football teams going head to head. It's going to be a good football game, but there's nothing extra added to it. I'm not getting more amped up for this game than any other game.''

Besides, Vick has bigger concerns than poking his former team.

Two straight losses have rattled the Eagles (3-3), who already fired their defensive coordinator and have hinted other changes might be coming. If Vick doesn't do a better job protecting the football - he's had eight interceptions and lost five fumbles - he'll soon be watching games from the bench.

``I never doubt myself. I'm always confident in myself,'' Vick insisted, sounding a lot like he did during his prime years in Atlanta. ``Even the turnovers I've had, it's because I'm so confident in what I'm doing.''

Vick and White remain close. They've already exchanged good-natured texts - Vick asking the Falcons receiver to drop a few passes, White suggesting that No. 7 throw a few more interceptions - but that's about the only link the quarterback still has to his former team.

Yet Vick will always be a big part of Falcons' history.

``He did a lot of good things when he was here,'' White remembered. ``He excited the city ... and he won a lot of games. He won some playoff games, too.''

If it sounds like White is taking a poke at his current quarterback - Ryan is 0-3 in the postseason - he's not. This is more about a team that's secure about the present and no longer feels threatened by the guy who was here before.

``Matt has kind of taken over and run with it,'' White said. ``He's kind of given the city that spark again, that spark we had when we had Mike. We're rolling right now.''

Yep, they've moved on.

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberr1963

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Ovechkin’s hat trick keeps Capitals rolling in 6-2 win against Red Wings

Ovechkin’s hat trick keeps Capitals rolling in 6-2 win against Red Wings

Capital One Arena — The stars came out for the Capitals on Tuesday night. 

There was Alex Ovechkin continuing his marvelous age-33 season with a hat trick, his first since Nov. 25, 2017. Nicklas Backstrom had four more assists. That’s his second four-point game in six games. T.J. Oshie returned from an 11-game absence (concussion) and scored on the power play. Evgeny Kuznetsov set up two goals. 

Anything else?

It all added up to a 6-2 win against the Detroit Red Wings and Washington is rolling. With that kind of firepower why wouldn’t it be? The Caps have won 11 of their past 14 games. At 18-9-3 and with 39 points, Washington is in first place in the Metropolitan Division and has a chance to build on that lead with five of its final eight games of 2018 at home. 

It didn’t hurt that the second-place Columbus Blue Jackets coughed up a 2-1 lead to the Vancouver Canucks at home Tuesday, allowing two goals in the final five minutes to lose 3-2 in regulation. The Blue Jackets are stuck on 34 points and suddenly the Capitals have a five-point lead in the division. 

“The season is all progress,” Backstrom said. “You keep building your team getting all the roles intact. Lately the last couple of games we’ve been playing good hockey, we’ve been playing with a lot of speed, we’ve been playing quick. That’s when we’re hard to play against, I think.”

The recent hot streak starts with Ovechkin, in the midst of one of the best stretches of his career. It was his 126th multi-goal game and he passed former Washington forward Dino Ciccarelli (125) for the 11th-most in league history.

“I’ll take it,” Ovechkin said. “Couple lucky goals.”

Ovechkin has points in 12 straight games (13 goals, six assists) and 18 of his 19 points during that stretch have come at even strength – with admittedly a few empty-net tallies tossed in for good measure. He extended his NHL lead to 25 goals – four ahead of Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine and Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point (21).  

If Ovechkin records a point against the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday he will tie his career best of 13 games set between Dec. 30, 2006 and Feb. 1, 2007. That was the year before this incredible run of sustained success began with Washington’s first playoff berth in the Ovechkin era. They didn’t even wear red uniforms back then. Ovechkin ranks eighth in points (38) in the NHL through 30 games. 

“I don’t watch much hockey so I can only go off the years I’ve been here but he’s playing outstanding,” Oshie said.

“At that level that he got himself to last year right at the start of the year … he’s really just kept building off that. It’s fun being on this side of that when Big O is going like that. It’s a privilege to play with him out there and you think maybe there are not other ways he can kind of amaze you and wow you but there was another example tonight.”

Last year, he didn’t get to 39 points until Dec. 30, which was game No. 40. He had three assists that night against the New Jersey Devils and ended that game at 41 points. He didn’t get to 25 goals until a Jan. 2 game against Carolina, which was Game No. 41. Ovechkin finished with 87 points (49 goals, 38 assists) and is well ahead of that pace and halfway to his magic number of 50.   

“The age he's at to still continue to not only want to get better, but to be able to,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said.

“After just the way he's played the game with such a physical presence and the energy he has and the size he is, it's not easy. He's been great in our room, the leadership is really stepped up for me, the best I've seen him lead in our room during the regular season. And then his overall play is following right along with it. I know some other years statistically have been better, but for me it's his best two-way hockey that he's played.” 

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The anatomy of Kelly Oubre Jr.'s follow-dunk and pose

The anatomy of Kelly Oubre Jr.'s follow-dunk and pose

Kelly Oubre Jr. didn’t know precisely what the moment required. The hops and charisma are always on standby regardless.

In one of his more controlled performances of the season, the Wizards’ forward managed to stand out in Monday’s road loss at Indiana. Not solely for his 23 points, even though it established a new season-high. Not just for a rim-rattling follow dunk, though props for the aerial work.

What came after the slam is what got social media jumping. It’s why his popularity surpasses his production. It’s why his critics sometimes cannot help but smile.

Two days after turning 23, the birthday boy explained how the jam and viral video pose went down.

It started with two aspects not always associated with Oubre’s game: Passing and court awareness.

Washington already trimmed Indiana’s 25-point lead to eight as the clock moved closer to the nine-minute mark of the fourth quarter, and the Wizards executed a play.

Teammates Bradley Beal and Markieff Morris ran interference for Oubre as he dribbled toward the right elbow.  Despite openings for a drive or shot, the player who passes with the frequency of a wishbone quarterback stuck with the plan. He looked for Morris rolling toward the basket.

“I just looked at the situation. The play was for Keef to roll and be open. He was open,” recalled Oubre.

Enter Myles Turner. The Pacers’ center dominated the paint throughout, finishing with 12 rebounds and five blocks. Oubre’s dribble brought Turner his way, but on the pass, the mobile big man quickly shifted across the paint. Morris created space and lofted a half-hook. Turner’s wingspan, on display with ferocity all night, altered the shot.

Oubre thought it might. Standing alone and with a clear path to the basket, the sleek forward made his move. Quick and light steps positioned out front if a miss bounced his way. It did.

“Myles is a great rim protector," said Oubre. "I just figured that since he’s been altering shots all game. I’d at least jump to give myself a chance to follow it up.”

Morris’s banked shot went short off the glass, sending the ball off the front of the rim. Oubre read the carom’s angle like geometry major. He rose with ease and hammered dunk the miss with two hands.

“Perfect timing, the stars aligned.”

Then the personality popped.

Before Oubre touched back down, the smile began to form. He stuck the landing like a 6-foot-7 Kerri Strug, though with two good ankles. As the grin enveloped his face and Oubre looked out into the crowd of non-well-wishers, both hands attached to his hips, forming a perfect pair of isosceles triangles. 

Oubre: “The pose was just me having fun. Their fans was talking crazy [expletive] though. I was just smiling at them the whole game.”

Just posing would have put a nice capper on the high-rising moment. Ever the showman, Oubre added a final flourish.

As the megawatt smiled remained, he went with a full head nod toward the crowd. He knew what they witnessed and that they didn’t love it. Regardless, they had to appreciate the style and let them know he felt the same.

“I don’t really look around when I’m playing," said Oubre. "It was really just because the fans didn’t want us to do good.

“I just have a lot of personality, you know? It was a good time, man.”

Oubre’s highlight reel includes a new entry. Such moments wow fans and keep scouts intrigued. If only Oubre could hone the rest of his game, they think. He’s shooting under 30 percent on 3-pointers since January. His shot selection and struggles with team defensive concepts cause exasperation.

Some team might fall in lust regardless and offer the 2015 first-round pick a hefty contract when he hits restricted free agency this coming summer. The Wizards can match any offer. Considering their salary cap concerns and Oubre’s uncertain trajectory, they might not.

Oubre wants more and says he works to improve his game daily while pushing free agency thoughts aside.

“Just getting better every day. Just taking it one day at a time, trying to live in the moment,” Oubre said. “Not necessarily looking at the future because the future will happen if I take care of now. Today I got better. Tomorrow is a new game, a new opportunity.”

Tomorrow comes Wednesday when the Wizards host the rival Boston Celtics.

“The Celtics have a lot of guys who are talented basketball players, and I’m a competitor,” Oubre said. “I’m looking forward to going to play against them.”

When it comes to the entertaining Oubre, even those head-scratching doubters probably feel the same.

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