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Surprising success has Indy thinking big for 2013

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Surprising success has Indy thinking big for 2013

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Andrew Luck spent Monday morning poring over a little more game film. It's never too early to start thinking about his next game.

Less than 24 hours after Indianapolis' magical 2012 run ended with a 24-9 playoff loss at Baltimore, Luck and the Colts were already contemplating what improvements they need to make before next season begins.

``I think I'll take this week to sort of figure it out more,'' Luck said. ``I don't think I've had enough time to really digest a lot of things.''

The Colts (11-6) were the surprise of the NFL this season. Some critics said they made the wrong move by releasing Peyton Manning, then took the wrong guy with the No. 1 overall draft pick. Surely the Colts had no chance of succeeding with a first-time head coach, a rookie quarterback and dozens of other new faces on the roster.

And that was long before Chuck Pagano missed 13 weeks after being diagnosed with leukemia and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians spent the playoff game in the hospital instead of calling plays. Arians was still in the hospital Monday with an undisclosed illness.

Turns out those doomsayers were as wrong as the Mayans.

Arians went 9-3 in Pagano's absence, tying the NFL record for most wins after a midseason coaching change, and somehow, the Colts kept winning games in improbable ways. There was Reggie Wayne's orange-gloved stretch that beat Green Bay and Vick Ballard's backward dive into the end zone to beat Tennessee in overtime. There was Luck's winning TD pass to Donnie Avery in Detroit as time expired and the emotional win against Houston when Pagano returned to the sideline Dec. 30.

``This is probably one of the most memorable seasons since I've been here and that includes my rookie season when we went 14-0 and went to the Super Bowl,'' said cornerback Jerraud Powers, who spent most of the season on injured reserve. ``Because of the turnover, because of the new faces, people didn't expect a lot from us.''

The Colts didn't care what was expected.

Luck played with a sore right knee and still set NFL rookie records for attempts and yards passing and fell just short of the league's rookie marks for completions and touchdown passes. He set a new franchise record for TDs rushing by a quarterback and managed to throw 10 fewer interceptions than Manning did in 1998. Luck's quarterback rating (76.5) was even higher than that of Manning or John Unitas in their first NFL seasons.

Based on the one universal barometer to judge quarterbacks - wins and losses - Luck did well, too. He won more games than any No. 1 draft pick in the Super Bowl era, tied the league's single-season record for most winning drives in the fourth quarter (seven), produced a league-high nine wins in one-possession games and reached the postseason one year sooner than Manning did when he was in Indy.

But Luck is far from satisfied after completing just 54.1 percent of his passes, being sacked 41 times, getting hit dozens more times and having all those passes batted at the line of scrimmage. His plan is simple.

``I think just improving accuracy, footwork, making the different throws,'' Luck said. ``I think I have a feel for how fast things occur, how our different guys get out of breaks, depths of routes, things of that nature. Just building up more rapport with the receivers, the tight ends and running backs.''

Other rookies are just as eager as Luck to get started on Year 2.

Tight end Dwayne Allen hopes to return in better shape after spending so much of last offseason prepping for the combine and his pro day. Running back Vick Ballard said he will spend countless hours working on his run reads. And all this after the Colts produced the highest combined yards rushing and yards receiving (3,108) by rookies since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

``It just tells me how hungry they are and how passionate they are about football. When (GM) Ryan (Grigson) and his staff get together and they go and look for football players and they look for players with Colt traits, that's exactly what we loved to hear and exactly what we expect to hear, from those type of guys,'' Pagano said. ``They will get away from it a little bit but again, they are hungry to get back and start working toward that ultimate goal.''

The coaching staff and veterans know this will not be the same team a few months from now.

Arians was scheduled to interview for head coaching jobs in Chicago and Philadelphia and there has been speculation he could be on the wish-lists of Cleveland and San Diego, too.

Dwight Freeney, the longtime face of Indy's defense, had his third successive decline in sacks after moving from defensive end to outside linebacker and could leave in free agency. Powers, Avery and right tackle Winston Justice are all scheduled to become free agents, too.

And after making all those tough decisions last winter, general manager Ryan Grigson has more than $40 million to spend in free agency to help reinforce the offensive line, the Colts' secondary and just about any other spots he and Pagano deem necessary. Pagano said they have not yet had that discussion.

So as Luck took a quick peek at the three pairs of shoes and the three empty hangers in his locker Monday, he wasn't thinking about what he was leaving behind. He was already planning ahead.

``It's weird. You've been going 100 mph 20-something weeks, and now, you're at 0 mph with nothing to do. It's weird coming in here and cleaning out your locker,'' Luck said. ``Talking to Dwayne Allen earlier this morning, I said, `How long ago does Week 1 against Chicago feel, and how much better do you think we've gotten since then?' Hopefully, we'll continue on that upward trend.''

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Remembering the other series-clinching goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov

Remembering the other series-clinching goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov

When you think about Evgeny Kuznetsov in the playoffs, most probably think of his overtime-winning goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2018 that ended the series and handed Washington a long-awaited victory over its archrival. But that wasn’t the first series-clinching goal Kuznetsov scored.

Before the Stanley Cup was brought to Washington, before the bird celebration, there was another epic moment of Kuznetsov’s career that now feels overshadowed by the 2018 run.

In 2015, the Caps returned to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus. They entered the postseason as the second-place team in the Metropolitan Division, drawing the third-place New York Islanders in the first round.

A back-and-forth series, it ultimately went the distance with Game 7 being played in Washington. As even as the series had been, the Caps dominated that Game 7, suffocating the Islanders and giving up only 11 shots on goal. Joel Ward put Washington ahead 1-0, but Frans Nielsen tied it early in the third period. Despite the dominant defensive performance, Jaroslav Halak (remember him?) would not allow the Caps to the chance to put the game away.

Just when it began to feel as if Halak was going to steal away another Game 7 from the Caps, a young Russian center in just his first full NHL season took over.

With less than eight minutes remaining in the third period, Kuznetsov took a pass along the half wall, showed Frans Nielsen his back and when Nielsen bit, he spun and cut to the center of the ice. Nielsen was caught a step behind and whacked Kuznetsov in desperation, actually diving to the ice to try to keep him from breaking loose. In one slick move Kuznetsov had cut through the Islanders’ defense and was in alone on net. Halak went down to the butterfly as Kuznetsov cut to center, but Kuznetsov showed incredible patience and did not immediately shoot. Suddenly, Halak was committed and helpless. He dove to his right desperately holding up the glove as Kuznetsov kept gliding across the ice, but Halak had left too much of the net open by going down too soon and Kuznetsov hit the corner.

With 7:18 remaining in the game and the series, Kuznetsov had given the Caps the 2-1 lead.

The series was a breakout performance for Kuznetsov who returned the following season and earned a top-six role, something not all that easy for young players to do under head coach Barry Trotz. It also gave a franchise still bearing the scars of Halak’s 2010 upset a measure of revenge.

And the rest is history.

What heroics does Kuznetsov have in store for the Islanders on Saturday when the two teams meet at 1 p.m.? Tune in to NBC Sports Washington at 12 p.m. for coverage.

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Wizards committed more turnovers against the Raptors than they have in any game in 25 years

Wizards committed more turnovers against the Raptors than they have in any game in 25 years

Whether it's good or bad, nothing the Wizards do is subtle. 

They'll score a million points and give up two million points. They'll beat the Heat, Nuggets and Celtics without Bradley Beal but also blow an 18-point fourth quarter lead to the Bulls. 

The Wizards had some turnover issues Friday night, but again, they're never subtle. 

Washington committed 28 turnovers on the way to a 29-point loss. Following the first seven minutes of play, the Wizards had seven turnovers and seven points. 

The last time the Wizards turned the ball over that much was April 2, 1994, in a 104-96 win over the Bucks. The last time an NBA team turned it over 28 times? The 2010 Suns. 

Nine Wizards players had multiple turnovers, while five players had at least three. 

Following Bradley Beal's comments criticizing the team's culture and need to develop winning habits, the Wizards' response left more than enough to be desired. Credit the Raptors defense utilizing their length and ball pressure to take advantage of when the Wizards were loose with the ball, but it takes more than good defense to turn it over 28 times. 

The bright side is this was an uncharacteristic performance for the Wizards. They currently average the 10th-fewest turnovers per game in the NBA, so there's a good chance they clean things up on Monday against the Pistons. 

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