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Texans look to limit mistakes against Patriots

Texans look to limit mistakes against Patriots

HOUSTON (AP) Win the turnover battle.

That's Texans coach Gary Kubiak's biggest concern as his team prepares for a divisional playoff game at New England.

The Patriots lead the NFL in turnover differential this season at plus-25. The Texans have done well in that area this year and were seventh with a plus-12 margin.

But in the first meeting with New England, Matt Schaub threw an interception on Houston's second drive, contributing to an early 14-0 hole in a 42-14 win by the Patriots.

``They get them,'' he said. ``They don't give it up. If we go in there and do anything to help them we're in trouble.''

Kubiak is also preaching the importance of taking advantage of opportunities this week. He was unhappy with Houston's inability to do that in the first meeting with the Patriots.

The Texans were just outside of the red zone when Schaub was intercepted in that game. And Houston went on fourth down twice before halftime and didn't convert after passes fell incomplete.

``Missed opportunities, they hurt all the time, but against these guys they're a lot worse because of what they do offensively and how good they are,'' Kubiak said of the Patriots. ``When you get opportunities to go down there and score some points, you better. You better not hurt yourself. We've got to find ways to do that. They're going to make plays and we understand that, but we got to find a way to make quite a few ourselves.''

Another component of that will be for Houston to score touchdowns instead of settling for field goals like it did again and again against the Bengals. Houston dominated the first half of that game, outgaining Cincinnati 250-53, but led by only two points at halftime after kicking three field goals.

``We've just got to finish,'' Kubiak said. ``We moved the heck out of the ball and had a good day offensively. We've got to finish, got to put those points on the board.''

Especially this week when the Texans face a New England team averaging an NFL-best 34.8 points a game. Houston is averaging 26 points, but managed more than 20 points just once in the last five games.

The Texans are 9 1/2-point underdogs in this one. Kubiak doesn't think his players are concerned about that.

``We know that our effort and how we performed last time wouldn't give us a chance against anybody on the road,'' Kubiak said. ``It's about right now refocusing on all the things we have to do to go down there and have a chance to be successful, and I'm sure that's what they're thinking about.''

That's doesn't mean the Texans haven't noticed that almost no one is giving them a chance to win on Sunday. Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy's piece in the Sunday newspaper called the Texans ``fraudulent,'' and said all the Patriots have to do to get to the AFC championship game is ``beat the terrible Texans.'' It got the attention of Arian Foster.

The star running back responded by changing his Twitter avatar to the first three paragraphs of the column on Monday.

Foster had 32 carries for 140 yards in Houston's wild-card win, and the Texans will certainly need another big game from him against the Patriots. They faced Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins of Cincinnati and not go up against another in Vince Wilfork.

``If you sit there and think you're going to run it at him consistently, it's very difficult,'' Kubiak said of Wilfork. ``They're very good against the run ... the thing that is so difficult, is he plays everywhere. So it's not like you go the other way with the ball or try to avoid something. You're going to have to deal with him all day long.''

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Wizards show creativity in front office shakeup by hiring Sashi Brown from NFL ranks

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Wizards show creativity in front office shakeup by hiring Sashi Brown from NFL ranks

Now that the pieces are falling into place, the Wizards' months-long process to revamp their front office is beginning to make more sense. The outcome was unexpected, but sensible as the Wizards aim to begin a new era while still holding onto some of their own personnel they see value in.

After allowing Tommy Sheppard to run their offseason with an interim tag, it was only logical to promote him long-term, so that's what they did. Yet, they were still able to bring in a collection of new people to change their direction and vision.

The most notable hiring was of Sashi Brown to serve as a senior vice president. But the Wizards also brought in Daniel Medina to improve their medical program and John Thompson III to assist in player development and wellness.

The Wizards deserve some credit for creativity in the end when at times over the past few months it appeared they lacked it. Reports had them trying to poach from other teams and some of their targets seemed entirely unrealistic. They were criticized for not having their own ideas.

But the Wizards were able to find an intriguing executive in Brown, they just had to look outside of their sport. Wizards managing partner Ted Leonsis scanned the other major leagues including the NFL, MLB and in European soccer. He found Brown in the football industry, waiting for his next gig after he was fired as executive vice president of the Cleveland Browns in 2017.

It is an outside-the-box decision by Leonsis that parallels what the Browns did back in 2016 when they overhauled their front office and brought in Paul DePodesta from the New York Mets, fresh off a run to the World Series. DePodesta was a longtime baseball executive, having served in a variety of roles including as the GM of the L.A. Dodgers. Though he played football in college, the NFL was not his expertise.

The jury is still out on whether the Browns were smart in going that direction. They are seen as a team on the rise, but have yet to accomplish anything of significance.

Brown, 43, certainly understands how a professional sports organization should work, having served both with the Browns and the Jaguars. But he is not an experienced basketball executive. That presents some risk and probably some learning on the job.

The latter point is important to consider regarding the timeline Brown's addition. In hindsight, the Wizards had good reason to not install their new executive in the middle the offseason bustle. Brown will have some catching up to do first.

Brown has never run an NBA team before, but what he did with the Browns is extra-interesting as for how it could pertain to the Wizards. Brown was known as a Sam Hinkie-like figure in the NFL because of the extensive teardown he orchestrated in Cleveland. The Browns tanked, got super young and accrued as many draft picks as possible.

Like Hinkie, Brown was fired before his work brought dividends. But will he advise the Wizards to follow a similar path? That would seem to put trading Bradley Beal on the table, though Sheppard and Leonsis are not in favor of such a move at this point.

Leonsis has compiled a collection of smart people to run his franchise, though only time to tell whether they are a good fit together. Now there are more cooks in the kitchen and they come from different backgrounds. It is worth noting, however, that Sheppard himself has football roots, having played at New Mexico State University.

What happens if it doesn't work will be interesting. Is Sheppard's fate tied to Brown in any way? How long is their leash?

What is clear is that Leonsis is adding more resources to the Wizards. Fans will appreciate that. Most will also like their significant push into analytics.

And it will likely be appreciated by many that Leonsis is taking a risk in this hire. The nature of the NBA rewards those who swing big, those who are aggressive. With this new front office dynamic, Leonsis believes the Wizards can be factors in free agency next summer.

According to a person familiar with their plans, the Wizards aim to enter next offseason with the cap room and young assets to acquire major difference makers. They want to add pieces of significance around John Wall and Bradley Beal. Brown will help them make their free agent pitch.

The operational word for the Wizards now is 'reboot' and not 'rebuild.' The Wizards see a path to contention that doesn't require an extended period of lottery picks.

Few things in sports offer guarantees and certainly, front office hirings are included. The Wizards, though, are showing some imagination and could be rewarded for it.

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20 Burning Capitals Questions: How will the contract situation affect Backstrom and Holtby?

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20 Burning Capitals Questions: How will the contract situation affect Backstrom and Holtby?

The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2.

But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.

With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for four weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.

The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today, we look at Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby who are entering the final year of their contracts.

Will the contract situations hang over their heads all season and affect their play?

Professional athletes face pressure all the time. They have pressure to perform, pressure to make the playoffs, pressure to make a deep run and to win championships. Sometimes the greatest pressure a player can feel, however, comes when they are playing for a contract.

When you watch some of the greatest athletes in the world perform superhuman feats on the ice, it can be easy to forget that these players are also human. These are people with families. While contract numbers can be fun to play with on CapFriendly, we are also talking about people whose given career field has a limited window. They are quite literally playing for the future security of their families.

This brings us to Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby, two players entering the final year of their contracts who also happen to be two of the best players on the team. Backstrom will be 32 by the end of next season and Holtby will be 30. Given their age, the next contract will likely be the last big one of their careers.

With no new update on their respective contracts and the calendar nearing August, it seems very likely, if not probably, that both players will begin the season without a new contract in hand.

One bad season or one bad injury could cause both players potentially millions of dollars. That is also tricky for the team because if the pressure of playing for their next contract messes with their heads, those are two of the team’s best players suffering rough seasons.

If Backstrom and Holtby struggle under the pressure of knowing every night they are playing for their next deals, they certainly would not be the first or last to do so. But let’s not forget who we are talking about here.

If you had to choose the two most unflappable players on the roster, Backstrom and Holtby would both be pretty high on that list. The mentally calm way in which they approach the game suggests both are well-suited to the pressures of a contract year.

While we have grouped both players into a single question as to how they will perform, both of their situations actually look very different.

Backstrom elected to go with security over money in his last contract for 10 years and $67 million. That deal has proven to be an extremely team-friendly contract. According to CapFriendly, Backstrom’s $6.7 million cap hit is only the 65th highest in the league. That’s a bargain for a future Hall-of-Famer in the prime of his career.

While he is certainly entitled to a raise, he also does not strike me as the type of player to hold the team hostage with an outrageous salary ask.

“This is all I know,” Backstrom said at the team’s breakdown day. “It’s crazy, but at the same time it’s a great feeling. I couldn’t ask for anything better from the fans and from the city of Washington.”

It is hard to imagine Backstrom and the team not being able to come to an agreement to keep him in Washington. He is still playing at a high level and, because he has never been an overly fast or overly physical player, he is likely to live up to new contract even in his mid-thirties. For him, there should be less pressure knowing he is likely to be back.

The same cannot be said for Holtby whose future in Washington is far more uncertain.

Much has been written on this topic of late and if you want a real deep-dive into why Holtby is doubtful to return to Washington, you can read my article here. To summarize, the high cost it will take to re-sign Holtby in both money and term as well as the looming Seattle expansion draft and the fact that the team’s top prospect is a goalie make it unlikely the Caps will be able to keep him. That puts even more pressure on Holtby as he faces the possibility of having to move on.

If there is one goalie who you should not worry about mentally, however, it is Holtby.

Holtby set a franchise record in April with his seventh postseason shutout. When asked what that did for his confidence he said, “Nothing. It's a win. We regroup, we know they're going to come harder next game and we'll focus on that."

When Washington was eliminated by the Carolina Hurricanes in a Game 7 double-overtime loss, Holtby said afterward, “Obviously it's disappointing. It's not where we expected to be. It's a hard-fought series and they just ended up making more plays than we did.”

Regardless of whether he is ecstatic or distraught, happy or sad, you can always expect a calm, monotone response from Holtby in the locker room. This does not strike me as a player who will spend the season sweating over a contract.

To say neither player will even think of their contract situations this season would be unrealistic. They are only human. But it seems unlikely that their future contracts will have any major impact on their play because of the personality of both players plus their respective situations. Backstrom in all likelihood will remain with the Caps while Holtby, even though it appears his future will be elsewhere, probably feels a lot better about his situation after seeing Sergei Bobrovsky sign a massive $70 million deal in the offseason.

Both players are level-headed and in good spots even if they do not have contracts beyond 2020.

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