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First-place Giants plot path to the postseason

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First-place Giants plot path to the postseason

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) Like recent years, the defending Super Bowl-champion Giants have had their share of ups and downs this season.

Unlike recent years, and despite the rollercoaster ride, New York controls its own destiny.

With three games left, the Giants (8-5) have a one-game lead in the NFC East on Washington (7-6) and Dallas (7-6). They win their final three games, they'll win the division title for a second straight year.

That hasn't been the situation often here at the Meadowlands - a smooth ride ahead, a cut-and-dried path the postseason. This time around, there is no help needed. Just win out and get ready for the playoffs.

``It's a much better feeling this way,'' defensive tackle Chris Canty said Monday, a day after the Giants defeated New Orleans, 52-27. ``We don't have to look over our shoulders and worry about anyone else. We have a three-game season left and if we win those three games, then we can control things.

``We'll take it one game at a time, but I like being in this position much better.''

Not that it will be easy, of course. New York closes with Atlanta (11-2), Baltimore (9-4), and Philadelphia (4-9). Two of those clubs are headed to the postseason.

At one point Sunday, it appeared as if the Giants were going to get some help in their quest for the division title, as both Washington and Dallas trailed late to Baltimore and Cincinnati, respectively. But the Redskins and Cowboys rallied, forcing the Giants to be emphatic vs. the Saints if they were to maintain the edge.

Consider the message sent. Eli Manning threw for four scores and five Giants had at least two catches in the win.

``We have to take care of our own business,'' Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. ``We've determined our own future and we do know what's at stake. After yesterday, nothing has changed in terms of the divisional standings. We understand everything. We have to keep concentrating at a higher level and hopefully we can build from the win yesterday. The facts are the facts.''

The quest continues Sunday in Atlanta, against a team that has already clinched the NFL South and is undefeated at home (6-0).

``We're prepping to play a very good Atlanta team that has only lost two times,'' Coughlin said.

That said, Atlanta lost to Carolina, 30-20, on Sunday, and may well ease off the pedal now that the Falcons have a division crown. The Giants defeated Atlanta, 24-2, in the playoffs last season, New York's first of four postseason victories en route to the title.

``We have to see how we match up, and realize where our strengths and weaknesses are,'' Coughlin said. ``Knowing the obvious, what we have to do over the next three weeks, is plain and obvious. It has to be part of our approach.''

Another standout performance from David Wilson would help. He became the first player in NFL history to rush for more than 100 yards and have more than 200 yards in return yards in a single game. Wilson's 327 all-purpose yards set a new team record.

``David has given us an added playmaker,'' Coughlin said. ``The timing is great for David to come to the front. He's gained experience all year, but he gained valuable experience last night as well. People now have to worry about defending him.''

Canty was asked if his team played better when they felt pressure.

``I don't necessarily agree that we're not going to play well unless our backs are to the wall,'' Canty said. ``We don't need our backs to the wall to give our best effort. We haven't had our best effort yet, but we need it to be sooner than later. We expect everything from Atlanta.''

The Giants have lost their last two road games.

``We have a tremendous opportunity to go there and take on that talented team,'' Canty said. ``We're a good football team on the road, so this is going to be a test for us. But we're where we want to be.''

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NOTES: Coughlin will not address the injuries to RB Ahmad Bradshaw (knee), WR Hakeem Nicks (hand) and WR Victor Cruz (hamstring) until they are further examined by team physicians. ... The Giants have topped 40 points three times this season, and have surpassed 35 points five times. ... New York is 3-0 vs. the NFC South already with only the Falcons remaining on the slate.

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Jay Gruden wants excellent play from Alex Smith, but he also expects personal responsibility

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USA TODAY Sports

Jay Gruden wants excellent play from Alex Smith, but he also expects personal responsibility

As June minicamp concluded, Redskins head coach Jay Gruden pulled no punches when asked about expectations for new quarterback Alex Smith. 

"He has got to get it down by the first game," Gruden said of Smith. 

While that might not sound overly demanding, remember this is Smith's first season in Washington. The QB will be playing with new teammates and implementing new terminology. 

Still, Smith is a veteran with a lot of experience, and frankly, it seems like Gruden isn't worried about a transition period. 

"We are not in here to build the team around him, the team is built and he has to lead it like right now," the coach said. "This isn’t a two- or three-year process. This is a one-year process and we have got to win right away."

Gruden made things quite clear. He expects the best from Smith, yesterday. 

Those comments created headlines, but there was something else the coach said about his passer that also stood out. Asked about Smith's veteran presence, Gruden talked about what the quarterback might mean for his teammates. 

"The whole job a quarterback has is obviously getting the most out of the people around you. That’s what I think he does as good as anybody," Gruden said. "He’ll get the most out of the tight ends. He’ll get the most out of the backs."

The coach continued, and things got a bit more interesting.

"He’ll get the most out of the receivers and offensive line because they’re going to want to play for him and they’re going to feel confident that he’s going to make something happen in a positive way or at least give it everything he’s got and take responsibility if something doesn’t work out."

Redskins fans are often a weirdly divided bunch. Many liked former QB Kirk Cousins but plenty did not think he was worth the type of money he was paid the last two seasons. Along the way, some fans will read Gruden's comments about making something happen and taking responsibility as a jab at Cousins. That's probably wrong. 

Remember, Trent Williams played through a serious knee injury last season. Asked why, Williams said he wanted to be out there to protect Cousins. Guys played for Cousins. 

The responsibility comment might mean something else, though. Their was a rather hostile back-and-forth last season between Gruden and Cousins last season, when the QB and coach disagreed about taking more risks with the football. A quick reminder of the scene: Cousins told a reporter that he would throw 20 interceptions if he played like Gruden wanted. The coach responded that while the interceptions might pile up, the QB would also throw 60 touchdowns. (Relive it here)

Throughout his career, Smith has thrown less interceptions than Cousins. But that doesn't mean Smith doesn't take risks or put his receivers in position to make plays. 

It's entirely possible Gruden simply expects Smith, a veteran, to be a responsible player and leader. And it's likely that comment had nothing to do with the Redskins previous quarterbacks. 

The bottom line is that Smith better be ready to go Week 1, and his coach made that clear. And if Smith isn't, Gruden expects his quarterback to take responsibility. 

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John Carlson agrees to big-money deal to stay with the Capitals

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John Carlson agrees to big-money deal to stay with the Capitals

On Friday, the Capitals shipped out Philipp Grubauer and Brooks Orpik to clear space on the salary cap for John Carlson's massive contract extension.

On Sunday night, Carlson signed on the dotted the line. 

The 28-year-old became the latest core Cap to sign a long-term deal, inking an eight-year extension that will carry an $8 million average salary. 

His cap hit is now the second highest on the team—behind Ovechkin’s $9.538 million charge and just ahead of Kuznetsov’s $7.8 million hit.

With Carlson locked up, the defending Stanley Cup champion now has the majority of its core signed through at least the 2019-20 season. Among the players with at least two years remaining on their deals are forwards Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nickas Backstrom and Lars Eller, defensemen Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov and goaltender Braden Holtby.

The Carlson news did not come as a surprise.

The Caps wanted to keep him. Carlson, who makes his offseason home in Washington, wanted to stay with the club that drafted him 27th overall in 2008. And on Friday night in Dallas, GM Brian MacLellan all but guaranteed that a deal was going to happen when he said, “We’re close and hopefully we can close the deal here over the next 24 hours.”

It ended up taking a little more than 24 hours, but in the end MacLellan got his D-man.

“John has been an exceptional and consistent player for our franchise and has blossomed into being one of the top defensemen in the NHL,” said MacLellan in a statement on Sunday. “Defenseman like John are a rare commodity in our League and, at 28 years of age, we feel he is just entering his prime.”

Indeed, Carlson notched a career-high 15 goals and 53 assists last season, and his 68 points led all NHL defensemen. He also became the eighth defensemen in Caps’ history to record 60 points in a season and the first since Mike Green accomplished the feat in 2009-10. Meanwhile, Carlson’s average ice time (24:47) also marked a career high.

“As a right-handed defenseman, John plays in all key situations and has contributed greatly to our team’s success on the special teams,” MacLellan added. “We are pleased for both parties to have come to an agreement and for him to continue his great career as a Washington Capital.”

With Carlson under contract, the Caps now have a little more than $13 million in cap space underneath the $79.5 million ceiling, according to www.capfiendly.com. Michal Kempny, Jay Beagle, Alex Chiasson and Jakub Jerabek are all unrestricted free agents, while Tom Wilson, Devante Smith-Pelly, Travis Boyd and Madison Bowey are restricted free agents.

Carlson’s also signing kicks off a big week for MacLellan.

In addition to negotiating with the free agents he hopes to retain, he’s expected to have a formal interview with associate coach Todd Reirden, who is the leading candidate to replace Barry Trotz as head coach.

So buckle up, there figure to be a few more important announcements in the coming days.

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