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Gonzalez another step closer to going out a champ

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Gonzalez another step closer to going out a champ

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) Tony Gonzalez remembers talking to Michael Strahan after the former New York Giants defensive lineman won a Super Bowl title in his final game.

Talk about going out in style.

``That's the way you want to do it,'' Gonzalez said Thursday. ``That's every athlete's dream. I don't care what sport it is. You'd love to win a championship and leave. That's where I'm at now.''

It took him 16 years to finally win a playoff game.

Now, he's two victories away from a Super Bowl championship with the Atlanta Falcons, two wins away from going out the same way Strahan did.

``There's no doubt I could play this game another three years if I wanted to, and at a high level too,'' the 36-year-old Gonzalez insisted. ``But there comes a point in your career where you've gotten everything you ever wanted from this game.''

Everything except a ring.

``Really, the only reason I played the last couple of years was for an opportunity like this,'' Gonzalez said. ``Now that it's presented itself, I feel closure coming on. But there's more closure to take care of. It's about winning this week, and winning the Super Bowl.''

The top-seeded Falcons (14-3) will host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in the NFC championship game, looking to reach the Super Bowl for just the second time in franchise history. Even though Gonzalez has not fully committed to retirement, there's a definite sense in the Atlanta locker room of wanting to give him the ultimate going-away gift.

He's given so much to the game, catching more passes than anyone in NFL history except Jerry Rice. He's given so much to the Falcons over the last four years, working with younger players and setting an example that all were encouraged to follow.

``We know what he's capable of doing on the football field,'' Falcons coach Mike Smith said. ``But Tony is a mentor to so many players in that locker room. He's not a guy of many words, but when he comes to work, he comes to work. We always tell the new guys in the locker room, `See that guy over there? Mimic what he's doing.'''

Gonzalez's influence has surely rubbed off on players such as receiver Julio Jones, already a Pro Bowler in just his second season. Even Roddy White, who already was one of the NFL's better receivers when Gonzalez was acquired by the Falcons after a dozen seasons in Kansas City, has picked up a thing or two since No. 88 arrived.

``I'd like to think I've helped them with their routine,'' Gonzalez said. ``I'm a big believer in routine. Yeah, you can talk about being great. When young guys come in, I ask them their goals. They all want to be Pro Bowl players. Well, how are you going to get there? You can't just say you're going to work hard. That's so ambiguous.''

He'll encourage them to settle on some well-defined goals - say, catching 50 balls before practice, 50 balls during the workout, and 50 balls afterward. Whatever works, make it a habit. And keep looking for ways to make the program even better. Even at his age, Gonzalez still tweaks his regimen if he comes upon something new that might give him an edge.

The 49ers (12-4-1) will have their hands full trying to defend everyone in what Gonzalez calls the PYP offense - Pick Your Poison. But the ageless tight end could be even more of a factor Sunday, facing a defense that doesn't stray far from its base packages and relies heavily on its linebackers in coverage.

As good as they are, Pro Bowlers Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith could have their hands full trying to cover Gonzalez, even if he has lost a step or two.

``He's still playing at a high level for them. He's still making big plays for them,'' Willis said. ``He may not be as fast as he used to be, but he's really crafty and knows how to get open.''

For Gonzalez, the idea of working harder than anyone else was instilled at an early age, but the benefits of setting a routine became apparent in his second season with the Chiefs. Facing high expectations after moving into the starting lineup, he dropped 17 passes. He knew something had to change, so he started reading books on other great athletes, from Rice to Michael Jordan.

``When I looked at their routines, I couldn't believe how much work goes into being a great player,'' Gonzalez said. ``I knew if I wanted to be great, this is what I've got to do. I came up with a routine. I started adding to it and changing it a little every year, but it kind of stays the same too. I'm always looking for an advantage.''

His methods have sure paid off. Gonzalez has 1,242 receptions and 103 touchdown catches, sixth on the career list. This season, he led the Falcons with 93 receptions for 930 yards and eight touchdowns.

Gonzalez was really at his best last week in the divisional playoff against Seattle. He made a brilliant touchdown catch in the back of the end zone, leaping up to snatch the ball away from a defender like the basketball player he was in college, boxing out for a rebound. He made a couple of other impressive grabs when it looked like he was completely covered.

Finally, after the Falcons squandered a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter and seemed on the verge of handing Gonzalez another playoff loss, he hauled in a 19-yard pass, picking up a few extra yards with a nifty move after the catch, to set up Matt Bryant's winning 49-yard field goal with just 8 seconds remaining.

When it was done, Gonzalez broke down in tears - the first time he can ever remember crying after a win.

Of course, he had never won in the playoffs, losing his first five tries.

``I was thinking, `I guess it's not meant to be,''' he recalled. ``Then to go out there and get it done, to get that victory the way we did, the floodgates opened in me.''

After waiting 16 years to get that first postseason victory, the idea of winning two more in the next three weeks doesn't seem so farfetched.

If that happens, Gonzalez sounds like any uncertainty over his planned retirement will surely be wiped away.

``That's the goal: win a championship and get out of here,'' he said. ``We're right at the door. The door is opening for us. We've just got to push it open a little bit more.''

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Ravens hold on to another close preseason win in Week 2

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Ravens hold on to another close preseason win in Week 2

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Baltimore Ravens spoiled Andrew Luck's Indianapolis homecoming.

They picked him off before allowing a completion, and Terrell Suggs nearly chopped the ball out of Luck's hands on a sack. The Ravens then secured a 20-19 preseason win over the Colts by stopping a late 2-point conversion run.

Luck was just OK in his first home start since Jan. 1, 2017. But he did receive a roaring ovation from the crowd when he took the field, led the Colts to one score and apparently emerged unscathed after going down twice on sacks.

"Not too sharp, certainly red-zone turnovers are a negative, missed a couple of throws I'd like to hit," he said. "And I didn't feel like we, as an offense, got into any semblance of a sustained rhythm."

Expectations were high following a solid start in Seattle.

This time, the Colts (1-1) looked sloppy.

Luck missed his first three throws, the third winding up in the hands of Ravens safety Anthony Levine Jr. Luck rebounded to finish 6 of 13 for 50 yards and set up 45-year-old Adam Vinatieri for a 57-yard field before leaving in the second quarter.

If Luck had his way, he might have played longer. But first-year coach Frank Reich wasn't taking any chances with Luck's surgically repaired arm.

"We just never found a rhythm for him and some of his balls were not his best balls," he said. "But I still have a lot of confidence we're headed in the right direction."

Joe Flacco, Lamar Jackson and the Ravens looked better.

Flacco went 7 of 9 for 72 yards and one touchdown. Jackson then showed flashes of what helped him win the 2016 Heisman Trophy.

Jackson was 7 of 15 for 49 yards and a TD and carried four times for 26 yards before giving way to another Heisman winner, Robert Griffin III, in the fourth quarter.

Indy still had a chance at the end after Tarell Basham recovered a fumble at the Ravens 9. Five plays later, Phillip Walker threw a 9-yard TD pass to Zach Pascal with 2:24 left. But the Ravens (3-0) stopped Walker on the 2-point try, recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock.

"Happy to get the win," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We did a lot of things that weren't winning football, especially in the second half."

The Ravens made it tough on Indy all night.

They stopped Indy twice in the red zone and nearly had a third when Jordan Wilkins fumbled the ball into the end zone, where it bounced right into the hands of receiver Chester Rogers.

Flacco gave the Ravens a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter when he hooked up with John Brown on a 7-yard score, and Jackson's masterful hurry-up drive at the end of the first half ended with Justin Tucker's 38-yard field goal with 2 seconds left.

When Colts rookie Nyheim Hines fumbled away the opening kickoff of the second half, Jackson hooked up with Chris Moore on a 7-yard TD pass to make it 17-10.

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Is Adrian Peterson a good fit with the Redskins?

Is Adrian Peterson a good fit with the Redskins?

Adrian Peterson is one of the best running backs in NFL history.

But is he the best running back for the Redskins right now?

The Redskins signed Peterson, 33 years old and a 12-year NFL veteran, to a one-year contract. They have been hit with injuries at the running back position, most notably the loss of second-round pick Derrius Guice for the season with a torn ACL. They didn’t make any moves when that diagnosis was announced a week and a half ago. But they lost two more backs to short-term injuries last Thursday and they decided that now is the time to go out and get somebody.

Is the need for a running back really there? Rob Kelley was the starter for the last half of the 2016 season and for seven games last year before a variety of ailments sent him to injured reserve. Samaje Perine became the starter after that and while he struggled at time he also showed growth potential.

Kelley is 25 and Perine is 22. In the absence of Guice, they could develop and when Guice returns next year the team would have a good stable of young running backs.

But now, Peterson is in the picture. We don’t yet know what his role will be, but they did not sign him to be the back who is inactive on game days. He will get some carries and that will take work away from Perine and Kelley.

Now, if Peterson is more productive than either of the two younger backs then that is a worthwhile swap. But what does he have left in the tank at age 33?

Last year, playing for the Saints and Cardinals he gained 529 yards on 156 carries, a very pedestrian average of 3.4 years per carry. That is very similar to the production of Perine, who had 175 carries for 603 yards, a 3.4 average. In his two years in the NFL, Kelley has averaged 3.9 yards per carry.

By signing Peterson, however, the Redskins are hoping that Peterson has one more big year, or at least a medium year by his standards, left in him. After all, it was just in 2015 that he led the NFL in rushing for the third time in his career as he ran for 1,485 yards and averaged 4.5 yards per carry. The Redskins would be delighted if he could get half of that total.

Any free agent signing can only be evaluated when the contract details are available. We only know that it’s a one-year deal and according to some reports he did not get any money guaranteed at signing. That seems to be a team friendly deal, but we will have to see what might kick in if he is on the Week 1 roster.

As with everything else, time will tell if this move works out. If the money is right, it’s a low risk transaction with some possible upside for Washington.

Back during minicamp while talking about how quickly Alex Smith would have to get up to speed with the offense, Jay Gruden said that the Redskins are not in a rebuilding mode and that they need to win now. After the trade for Smith, the Peterson signing is another indication that patience may be wearing thin.

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