ats exactly what it is, Mets manager Terry Collins said. Thats part of the gig, and thats w | Forum

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The NFC is so wide open that a Thursday night meeting between Atlanta and Tampa Bay could wind up having some significance when the playoff races conclude.Neither team has been particularly consistent. Had the Falcons not held off Green Bay on Sunday, they would have been in a freefall similar to last season, when they went from 6-1 to 8-8.When you come through in those, for sure it gives you something, coach Dan Quinn says. To get the job done (Sunday) was significant.The Buccaneers, meanwhile, cant win at home, dropping all three matchups. One of their three wins came in Atlanta to open the schedule.Tampa would be most tempted to throw on offense because Atlanta is ranked only 27th against the pass. Now that their top three running backs -- Doug Martin, Charles Sims and Jacquizz Rodgers -- are hobbled, the Bucs might not have a choice.The challenge isnt just physical, either.Its very difficult physically and its very difficult mentally, too, because they didnt get a chance to process the last game, says Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith, the Falcons former coach.We havent even talked to them about the last game, havent talked one word about the last ballgame. Weve moved on to the next one because thats the challenge that we have.The Falcons (No. 6 in AP Pro32) are 2 1-2 point favorites over the Bucs (No. 25). They will respond better to the challenge.FALCONS, 30-24KNOCKOUT LEAGUE TIPDenver did the deed last Sunday, though it wasnt easy. How can we not go with DALLAS this week?No. 2 Dallas (minus 7) at No. 32 ClevelandSearching really hard for Browns first victory. This isnt it.BEST BET: COWBOYS, 27-16No. 23 Carolina (minus 3) at No. 26 Los AngelesDespite their win over Cardinals, dont see Panthers as favorite here.UPSET SPECIAL: RAMS, 20-17No. 11 Pittsburgh (plus 2 1-2) at No. 24 BaltimoreThis would have been upset special if we knew more about Big Bens availability. Still ...STEELERS, 24-20No. 3 Denver (pick-em) at No. 7 OaklandAre Raiders ready for changing of the guard in AFC West? Not quite.BRONCOS, 23-20No. 10 Philadelphia (plus 2 1-2) at No. 14 New York GiantsLate-game collapse at Dallas could plague Eagles for a while.GIANTS, 21-20No. 30 Jacksonville (plus 8) at No. 4 Kansas CityCant believe the Jags will be horrible once again. As for a win against Alex Smith-less Chiefs -- nope.CHIEFS, 27-20No. 16 Buffalo (plus 7) at No. 5 Seattle, Monday nightBills need LeSean McCoy on the field to compete.SEAHAWKS, 22-10No. 17 Detroit (plus 6) at No. 8 MinnesotaBoth teams come off road duds. Take the hosts.VIKINGS, 17-14No. 28 New York Jets (plus 4) at No. 21 (tie) MiamiThis game will not be decided by outstanding QB play.DOLPHINS, 16-13No. 21 (tie) New Orleans (minus 2) at No. 31 San FranciscoNiners arent ready to beat anybody right now.SAINTS, 29-16No. 27 Indianapolis (plus 7) at No. 9 Green BayPackers are SO banged-up, but still the better side.PACKERS, 23-14No. 19 Tennessee (plus 4 1-2) at No. 20 San DiegoEven though they cant finish, Chargers are solid enough.CHARGERS, 30-23.---Last Week: Against spread (7-6). Straight up: (9-3-1)Season Totals: Against spread (54-60-4). 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NEW YORK -- An early September series last season between the New York Mets and Washington Nationals laid the groundwork for the Mets trip to the World Series while spelling the end of the Nationals playoff hopes.Washington hopes to return the favor this weekend.The National League East-leading Nationals head to New York on Friday for the opener of a three-game series at Citi Field. Washington, which was off Thursday, enters on a three-game winning streak following a sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies this week. The Mets had their three-game winning streak snapped in a 6-4 loss to the Miami Marlins on Thursday night.Unlike a year ago, the NL East is not up for grabs as September begins. Last season, New York entered a three-game series that began on Labor Day with a four-game lead but swept Washington and never trailed by fewer than six games the rest of the way.Now, the Nationals (78-55) lead the second-place Mets (69-65) by 9 1/2 games and are already playing with October in mind. The Nationals/Montreal Expos franchise has not won a playoff series since 1981, the longest drought in the big four sports.I think were starting to jell a little bit, Nationals left fielder Jayson Werth said Wednesday following Washingtons 2-1 win over the Phillies. Once we get into about halfway through September, I hope were hitting on all cylinders and we can carry that through as long as we can.While a second consecutive division title appears out of reach, the Mets also enter the weekend with hopes of reaching the postseason. New York won nine of its past 12 games to move within two games of the St. Louis Cardinals in the race for the NLs second willd card.ddddddddddddIf the Mets are to return to the playoffs, they will have to do so with a piecemeal roster. Five of the 10 players who took the field against the Kansas City Royals on Opening Day are out for the season, including second baseman Neil Walker, who confirmed Thursday he soon will undergo surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back.In addition, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera (left knee) and left fielder Yoenis Cespedes (right quad) were each on the disabled list in August are likely going to need semi-regular days off down the stretch. Neither player started Thursday, though Cabrera hit a two-run, pinch-hit home run in the ninth, an inning after Cespedes struck out as a pinch hitter.Its a tough situation -- thats exactly what it is, Mets manager Terry Collins said. Thats part of the gig, and thats why weve got backup players here.Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard (12-7, 2.55 ERA) is scheduled to take the mound Friday against Nationals right-hander A.J. Cole (0-1, 4.97 ERA).Syndergaard, who ranks third in the NL in ERA, has allowed a total of three earned runs while winning each of his past three starts. In three starts against the Nationals this year, he is 1-2 with a 4.91 ERA. He has a 2-2 record and a 3.12 ERA in six career starts vs. Washington.Cole, who will be making his third start of the season and his fourth as a major-leaguer, has never faced the Mets. In his most recent outing, he gave up three runs in 5 2/3 innings during a no-decision against the Colorado Rockies on Saturday. ' ' ' 
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