Is this the best team in the NFL?

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Is this the best team in the NFL?

From Comcast SportsNetTAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- No one has led more late game-winning drives during the past five seasons than Matt Ryan, and the Atlanta Falcons quarterback did it again with his fifth one this season.Matty Ice threw for 353 yards and overcame two critical turnovers to stop Tampa Bay's four-game winning streak with a 24-23 victory on Sunday.The Falcons (10-1) are tied with the Houston Texans for the NFL's best record, and Ryan had plenty of help in withstanding a challenge from the up-and-coming Buccaneers (6-5)."They are playing with a lot of confidence," said Ryan, who has won seven of his past eight starts against the Bucs. "It's always been a tough place for us to come play. They play with great effort, and I think they have a good football team."Ryan teamed with Julio Jones on an 80-yard TD midway through the third quarter, but the Falcons found themselves trailing 23-17 after the Bucs marched for a touchdown, then used a sack-fumble to set up a field goal that left Atlanta needing another strong finish from their quarterback.Ryan obliged by a leading a six-play, 64-yard march that Michael Turner finished with a 3-yard TD run that put the NFC South leaders ahead for good with 7:55 remaining.Connor Barth missed a 56-yard goal for Tampa Bay (6-5) in the closing minutes, and the winning streak that's helped the Bucs climb back into playoff contention following a slow start ended when Josh Freeman's desperation pass fell incomplete in the end zone on the final play."The last drive, that's something we've done before this season," Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "I really think that's a positive for us to be able to come up with plays like that when we have to like that. ... I'm really happy with the way we responded."It's getting to be a way of life. Ryan has also led late marches to beat Carolina, Washington, Oakland and Arizona this season and has put together 21 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime since entering the league in 2008 -- four of them against the division rival Bucs.The Falcons won't have long to celebrate this one. The host the New Orleans Saints Thursday night in a rematch of the only game they've lost."Ten-and-1 is great, but I'll tell you what I've said since the beginning of the season: We're just jockeying for position," Gonzalez said. "We just want to put ourselves in the best position, playing the best football. Right around this time is when you want to start gelling as a team and take it on into the playoffs because that's the most important thing."The win stopped the Bucs, who've won five or seven following a 1-3 start, from tightening the NFC South standings. Turner also scored a fourth-quarter TD that helped the Falcons overcome six turnovers to beat Arizona 23-19 last week.Doug Martin scored on a pair of 1-yard run for the Bucs, however the rookie who began the day leading the NFL in total yards from scrimmage was limited to 50 yards rushing on 21 carries.Barth kicked field goals of 22, 42, and 48 yards, the latter giving the Bucs their six-point lead after cornerback E.J. Biggers sacked Ryan to force a fumble. Ryan threw a second-quarter interception -- his sixth pick in two weeks -- that led Barth's field goal that made it 10-10 at the half.Ryan completed 26 of 32 passes, including four straight on the drive that Turner finished with his TD run. Jacquizz Rodgers had a 5-yard TD run in the first quarter, and Jones finished with six receptions for 147 yards despite playing on a sore right ankle that limited him in practice.Ryan started the game with 10 straight completions before Ronde Barber's interception and 28-yard return to the Atlanta 31 led to Barth's first field goal.The Falcons drove to the Tampa Bay 4 in the closing seconds of the half, but wasted an opportunity to regain the lead when Matt Bryant hooked a 22-yard field-goal attempt wide left as time expired. The Atlanta kicker missed a 48-yarder with 8 seconds left, giving the Bucs one more chance to pull out what would have been their first signature victory under first-year coach Greg Schiano."It was a hard-fought game by both teams, a very physical game," Schiano said. "But I do think missed opportunities were a big part of it. There were some chances both offensively and defensively, and in the kicking game."Freeman finished 19 of 30 for 256 yards, and Vincent Jackson had five catches for 96 yards. A big factor in the loss, though, was Atlanta's held the Bucs to field goals after each of Ryan's turnovers, once after Tampa Bay had 1st-and-goal at the Atlanta 3."I thought our defense did an outstanding job again. They were put in some tough situations after turnovers," Falcons coach Mike Smith said, adding that slowing Martin was one of the keys to the game as well."We knew it was going to be one of our musts,' and I thought we did a nice job," Smith added. "I thought we played the run extremely well, controlled the line of scrimmage. That is an outstanding running back."NOTES:Falcons starting cornerbacks Asante Samuel (shoulder) and Dunta Robinson (head) left the game with injuries in the third quarter. ... Barber, who made his 210th straight start to tie Jim Otto for the seventh-most consecutive starts in NFL history, has 47 career interceptions. ... Martin has 1,050 yards rushing yards, eighth-most in a season by a Tampa Bay running back. ...Gonzalez had five receptions for 62 yards, and Roddy White had six for 57 yards for Atlanta.

Giants Notes: Blach shows resiliency; Another option in center?

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USATSI

Giants Notes: Blach shows resiliency; Another option in center?

CHICAGO — John Lackey's night started with a leadoff homer. Ty Blach's night started with a 13-pitch battle. Neither one is a positive for a pitcher, but Blach didn't view it that way. He actually appreciated Ben Zobrist stretching him out.

"It's good to have a battle like that and get you locked in," Blach said. "It gets you focused and you'll be like, I can execute and get guys out. It's good. It's a good battle."

There, in a nutshell, is so much of what Bruce Bochy loves about his young left-hander. The Giants have found Blach's arm and resolve to be remarkably resilient. He wasn't bothered when they moved him to the bullpen and he didn't get too high when they moved him back to the rotation. He is the same after seven shutout innings or three poor ones. Bochy smiled when asked about the Zobrist at-bat, which ended in a strikeout looking. 

"How 'bout that?" the manager said. "He won that at-bat. It seems like the advantage goes to the hitter, seeing all those pitches. He kept his focus and got a called strikeout and here he is pitching in the eighth inning."

After needing 13 pitches for one out, Blach got the next 23 on 81 pitches. Bochy thought Blach tired a bit in the eighth, but the deep effort allowed Bochy to mix and match in the bullpen, and ultimately he found the right mix. Hunter Strickland and Mark Melancon closed it out and got Blach his second win.

--- From last night, Joe Panik's huge night helped give Blach an early lead. With the help of Ron Wotus and his shift charts, he also put on a show defensively.

--- We're trying something new right after the final pitch: Here are five quick takeaways from the 6-4 win.

--- The options game sent Kelby Tomlinson back to Triple-A on Wednesday when the Giants activated Melancon, but his latest stint in Sacramento comes with a twist. Tomlinson started his third consecutive game in center field on Monday. The Giants are getting a bit more serious about their longtime plan to make Tomlinson a super-utility player. 

“Tommy is a valuable guy in the majors and if we can give him some experience in the outfield, it gives you more flexibility and versatility,” manager Bruce Bochy said. 

This is not Tomlinson’s first foray into the outfield. He did work there in the offseason after the 2015 season and he has played 25 big league innings in left field the last two seasons. This is Tomlinson’s first real experience with center field, and while in the past he has said that the transition isn’t as easy as some might think, Bochy is confident Tomlinson can figure it out. He certainly has the speed to be a semi-regular in the outfield, and the Giants aren’t exactly brimming with quality center field options behind Denard Span, who is dealing with his second injury of the season. 

“It’s a little different now,” Bochy said when asked about Tomlinson’s past experiences in the outfield. “He’s in Sacramento doing it, and knowing there’s a possibility we could need help in the outfield.”

If the switch doesn’t come in handy this season, it could in 2018. Bochy compared Tomlinson’s infield-outfield ability to Eduardo Nuñez, who has found regular playing time in left but is a free agent after the year. 

--- Hunter Pence did some light running in the outfield before Monday’s game. Bochy said Pence is still about a week away from being an option.

--- Bochy has said it a few times now when asked about the standings, so it’s officially a new motto for a team that got off to a brutal start: “We’ve put ourselves in a great situation for a great story.”

--- They're starting to get a little grumpy around here with their team hovering around .500. Perhaps the Cubs thought they could fool a few on the way out of Wrigley.

This is the NBA Finals that will define the Warriors forever

This is the NBA Finals that will define the Warriors forever

There are no more ways to extol the virtues of the Golden State Warriors without redundancy. They have owned three consecutive regular seasons and three consecutive Western Conference playoffs, and just finished savaging the last one faster than any team since the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers, who didn’t have to play as many games as these Warriors did.

But now the season begins, and in the pass-fail world of the NBA Finals, this is the one that will define the Warriors for the ages.

After mugging the San Antonio Spurs, 129-115, to close out the West final in the minimum number of sanctioned events, the Warriors now wait for the resolution of Cleveland-Boston to begin the final assault on their destiny.

They did so without giving in to their occasional predilection for easing up on the throttle. They took an early lead, widened it slowly and carefully and made damned sure the Spurs never felt like they could do as the Celtics had done the night before in Cleveland. The Warriors were coldly efficient (well, okay, those 17 turnovers were bothersome but not ultimately an issue) at both ends of the floor and all points inbetween, and the result and its margin were both fair representations of the difference between the two teams.

In dispatching the Spurs, they became the first team ever to put 120 points on a Gregg Popovich-coached team three consecutive times; indeed the only time Popovich ever had one of his teams allow 120 in back-to-back games was when the 2005 team that eventually won the NBA title beat the Los Angeles Clippers and Warriors, both in overtime.

And while this series will be remembered as the one in which the Spurs had the least amount of weaponry, it will also be the one in which the Warriors will be remembered for wasting only one of the eight halves they played. It is difficult, in other words, to make the case that San Antonio would have won the series even with Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker. We do know it would still be going on, but the outcome seems only slightly more in doubt in such a case.

But as this affects the Warriors, this next series will dictate all of it. Win, and they can claim a mini-dynasty. Lose, and they will damned in the court of public opinion in ways that make last year’s 3-1 memes seem downright charitable.

It is the price they pay for being very good already and then adding Kevin Durant without giving up anything of real substance. It’s the price they pay for wanting it all and then doubling down for more.

People and teams who did that are not treated kindly unless they win everything that can be won, and the Warriors are now that team – like the Yankees of lore and Patriots of today, they are the standard of both excellence and excess, and marrying the two without danger is not possible, as they learned a year ago.

But that was then, Draymond Green’s wayward hand and five minutes of 0-for-everything shooting is just history. They can adapt and avenge if not eradicate the hard lesson of 2016 and be thought of as the team they all believe themselves to be.

All they have to do is take the Celtics or Cavaliers and ender them inert. They don’t have to do it in four games; chasing numbers is a fool’s errand as they discovered last year chasing the now-meaningless 73.

They just have to do it four times, and if they play as they have, winning 12 consecutive games by an average margin of 16 points and change  against three other quality teams, they will succeed at the hardest level basketball can create. And whatever people may say of them good or ill, they will have achieved what was demanded of them by both supporter and detractor alike.

And that, to paraphrase Kevin Durant, is what they came to do. Win the thing, and not worry about the numbers -- especially not the style points.