49ers rally to advance to the Super Bowl

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49ers rally to advance to the Super Bowl

From Comcast SportsNetATLANTA (AP) -- The clutch quarterback. The genius coach. The big-play defense.The San Francisco 49ers are ready to start a new dynasty with a familiar formula.Next stop, the Big Easy.Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore led San Francisco to a record comeback in the NFC championship game Sunday, overcoming an early 17-0 deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons 28-24 and send the 49ers to their first Super Bowl since 1995.Gore scored a pair of touchdowns, including the winner with 8:23 remaining for San Francisco's first lead of the day, and the 49ers defense made it stand up. A fourth-down stop at the 10-yard line denied Atlanta another stirring comeback after blowing a big lead."Everybody does a little," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said, "and it adds up to be a lot."San Francisco (13-4-1) moves on to face Baltimore at New Orleans in two weeks, looking to join Pittsburgh as the only franchises with six Super Bowl titles. It'll be a brother-vs.-brother matchup, too, since John Harbaugh coaches the Ravens.Joe Montana led the 49ers to four Super Bowl wins and Steve Young took them to No. 5. It's up to Kaepernick and Co. to get No. 6."He just competes like a maniac all the time," said Harbaugh, whose much-debated decision to bench Alex Smith at midseason now looks like the best move of the year.Harbaugh was hoppin' mad when a disputed call went against the 49ers on Atlanta's potential winning drive. He leaped in the air, screamed at the officials and had to be restrained by his staff from charging the field.No complaints when it was over."We rose up there at the end," Harbaugh said.His second-year quarterback, who runs like a track star, didn't get a chance to show off his touchdown celebration -- flexing his right arm and kissing his bicep, a move that quickly became a social media sensation known as Kaepernicking.But he shredded the Falcons through the air by completing 16 of 21 for 233 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown to Vernon Davis, and had them so worried about his running ability out of the spread option that Gore and LaMichael James had plenty of room.Gore scored a pair of touchdowns, including the game winner with 8:23 remaining for San Francisco's first lead of the day. Davis scored the first TD for the 49ers on a 15-yard run."I take my hat off to Atlanta. They played hard. They've got a great team," Gore said. "But we fought, man. We fought and we deserved it."The 49ers pulled off the biggest comeback victory in an NFC championship game, according to STATS. The previous NFC record was 13 points -- Atlanta's victory over Minnesota in the 1999 title game, which sent the Falcons to what remains the only Super Bowl in franchise history.The AFC championship game record is 18 points, when Indianapolis rallied past New England in 2007.Harbaugh is hardly cool and collected like the 49ers' first Super Bowl-winning coach, Bill Walsh, but has pulled off a similar turnaround in San Francisco. The 49ers had eight straight years without a winning record before their new coach arrived from Stanford in 2011.He immediately led San Francisco to the cusp of the Super Bowl, losing to the eventual champion New York Giants in overtime in last year's NFC title game, a bitter defeat at home set up by a fumbled return.This time, the 49ers were the ones winning on the road to set up another celebration in the city by the bay, which is rapidly becoming the new Titletown USA. They'll try to follow the lead of the baseball Giants, who won the World Series in October."We've come full circle," said Denise DeBartolo York, part of the family that has owned the 49ers since their championship days, "and the dynasty will prevail."Kaepernick guided San Francisco on a pair of second-half scoring drives that wiped out Atlanta's 24-14 lead at the break. Gore scored on a 5-yard run early in the third quarter, then sprinted in from 9 yards out for the winning score with 8:23 remaining after each team made crucial mistakes to ruin potential scoring drives.On both of Gore's TDs, the Falcons had to worry about Kaepernick running it in himself. They barely even touched the running back on either play, and James scored pretty much the same way."I kind of figured that coming in and they showed that on film, so I assumed Frank and LaMichael were going to have a big day," Kaepernick said. "Frank ran hard today, and I can't say enough about him."The top-seeded Falcons (14-4), in what appeared to be the final game for Hall of Famer-to-be Tony Gonzalez, tried to pull off another season-extending drive. But, unlike the week before against Seattle, they needed a touchdown this time.They came up 10 yards short.On fourth down, Matt Ryan attempted a pass over the middle to Roddy White that would have been enough to keep the drive going. But linebacker NaVorro Bowman stuck a hand in to knock it away with 1:13 remaining.The 49ers ran off all but the final 6 seconds, not nearly enough time for Ryan to pull off his greatest comeback yet.In the divisional playoffs, the Falcons blew a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter, the Seahawks scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 31 seconds remaining. But Ryan completed two long passes, setting up Matt Bryant's 49-yard field goal for 30-28 victory.The Falcons came up short of their second Super Bowl, leaving the 1995 Braves as the city's only major sports champions. This one figures to hurt for a while."We didn't make the plays when we had the opportunity," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "There were five or six plays, like in most hard-fought games, that make a difference. There were ebbs and flows and changes in momentum, and they made more plays than we did."Kaepernick, who ran for 181 yards against the Packers the week before to set an NFL playoff record for a quarterback, didn't have much chance to use his legs against the Falcons. He broke off a 23-yard gain, but was thrown for a 2-yard loss the only other time he carried the ball.But Kaepernick showed he's more than a runner. His favorite receiver was Davis, who hauled in five passes for 106 yards.Gore carried 21 times for 90 yards, while James added 34 yards on five carries.Ryan finished 30 of 42 for 396 yards, by far the best performance of his playoff career. But his postseason record dropped to 1-4, done in by two big miscues -- an interception and a fumble -- in the second half.Julio Jones was Ryan's leading target most of the day, finishing with 11 catches for 182 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He hauled in a 46-yarder less than 4 minutes into the game, then made a dazzling grab in the left corner of the end zone for a 20-yard score. He got his left foot down, then planted his right foot about an inch inside the line -- while cornerback Tarell Brown was all over him.Ryan threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Gonzalez with 25 seconds remaining in the first half after the 49ers had cut the deficit to 17-14. It seemed the home team had reclaimed the momentum heading to the locker room, but, amazingly, that would be its final score of the day. The 49ers quickly seized control on the opening possession of the second half, driving 82 yards in just seven plays for Gore's first TD.After a nearly perfect first half, in which Ryan was 18 of 24 for 271 yards and those three TDs, the quarterback known as Matty Ice made a couple of crucial blunders.First, he tossed a pass that was picked off by Chris Culliver, halting a drive in 49ers territory. Ryan ripped off his chinstrap in disgust.Then, with the Falcons in scoring range for at least a field goal, Ryan failed to grab a shotgun snap, appearing to take his eyes off the ball before he caught it. The ball squirted away and Aldon Smith recovered for the 49ers at their own 37."Against a good team, you can't have those kind of mistakes," Ryan said.San Francisco also squandered some chances. Struggling kicker David Akers clanked a 38-yard field goal try off the upright, and Michael Crabtree fumbled just short of the goal line, the ball stripped away by Dunta Robinson and recovered by Stephen Nicholas. But, after that big defensive stop with 13 1-2 minutes remaining, the Falcons went three-and-out.The 49ers drove for the winning touchdown.Atlanta took the ensuing kickoff and used up nearly all the clock while going 70 yards. The Falcons might have reclaimed the lead if Harry Douglas had been able to stay on his feet while hauling in a 22-yard pass.The defender slipped, and so did Douglas, but he held on to the ball. Harbaugh thought it touched the turf and challenged the call, then launched into his tirade when the officials let it stand. It all worked out, though.As for the 36-year-old Gonzalez, who said all year he was all but certain this would be his final season, it sure sounded like the end."I've had such a great life," he said. "I wish it would've culminated with the Super Bowl, but it didn't."

NFL Notes Rams' All-Pro Aaron Donald skips OTAs amid contract talks

NFL Notes Rams' All-Pro Aaron Donald skips OTAs amid contract talks

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- All-Pro defensive lineman Aaron Donald has skipped the Los Angeles Rams' first day of organized team activities while he negotiates a long-term contract extension with the club.

Rams general manager Les Snead says the team knew Donald wouldn't be at their training complex Monday.

Snead acknowledged Donald's absence is because of their contract negotiations, which are reaching "the serious part." The GM is confident Donald will be a long-term fixture on the Rams' line.

The Rams exercised their fifth-year option for 2018 on Donald last month. He will make nearly $7 million next year. Snead has repeatedly said the Rams plan to sign Donald to a long-term deal.

Donald is a three-time Pro Bowler and a two-time All-Pro in his three-year career.

Vikings: Zimmer takes time off after latest eye surgery
MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer finally relented, taking some time away from the team to allow his right eye a proper recovery from his latest surgery.

Better in the spring than during the fall, he realized.

As Zimmer departed Monday for some rest and relaxation at his vacation ranch in rural Kentucky, general manager Rick Spielman said the organization anticipates a return by Zimmer "in a few weeks." Players will take the field Tuesday for the first of 13 scheduled offseason practices, including the three-day mandatory minicamp that runs June 13-15.

"We all agree Mike's health is the priority, and we believe rest and recovery are in his best interest for the long term," Spielman said.

Zimmer directed a free youth football camp Saturday at team headquarters. He revealed to reporters that he underwent an eighth procedure on the eye last week, a trying seven-month stretch that has included several unplanned operations (see full story).

Jets: Former 2nd-round pick Smith waived
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Wide receiver Devin Smith has been waived from the injury list by the New York Jets.

A second-round draft pick from Ohio State in 2015, Smith rarely saw the field for the Jets. He tore his ACL during the offseason workout program after he appeared in four games last season. He started that season on the physically unable to perform list while rehabbing from another ACL tear suffered in December 2015.

If Smith clears waivers, he would revert to the Jets' injured reserve list.

"It's bad luck and bad timing because the kid worked so hard to get back," coach Todd Bowles said last month during the NFL draft. "He has to persevere and adversity will help him get stronger. But unfortunately in this game, over my course of time playing and coaching, you see these types of things. Some of the best athletes get hurt and don't get a chance to get on the field, and it's just bad timing, bad luck."

The Jets also re-signed wide receiver WR Deshon Foxx on Monday. Foxx originally signed with the Jets in January and was waived May 9. The Connecticut product first signed with Seattle 2015 after going undrafted and was waived/injured with a hamstring injury that August.

Buccaneers: TE Howard signs rookie deal
TAMPA, Fla. -- Tight end O.J. Howard has signed his rookie contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Howard, who was the 19th overall pick in last month's NFL draft, signed a four-year deal on Monday that includes a team option for a fifth season. He is the first of Tampa Bay's six draft picks to sign.

Howard, who is 6-foot-6 and 251 pounds, was a third-team Associated Press All-America selection last season. He started 12 of Alabama's 14 games last season and had 45 receptions for 595 yards and three touchdowns.

The drafting of Howard and signing DeSean Jackson in free agency should give Jameis Winston more options in Tampa Bay's passing game.

The Buccaneers also announced that defensive end Jacquies Smith has signed his restricted free agent tender.

The case for Duke's Jayson Tatum to the Sixers at No. 3

The case for Duke's Jayson Tatum to the Sixers at No. 3

With the 2017 NBA Draft Lottery behind us, there appears to be a consensus on the first two selections in next month's draft. The Celtics are expected to take Washington guard Markelle Fultz, and it would be a surprise if the Lakers passed on Lonzo Ball.

After that, all bets are off, and the Sixers will have plenty of options at pick No. 3.

A popular choice has been Kansas' Josh Jackson, and with good reason. The 6-foot-8 guard was an All-Big 12 first-team selection in his lone season with the Jayhawks, averaging 16.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.

Others have pointed to Kentucky sharpshooter Malik Monk, who would fill an obvious need. Monk consistently has shown the ability to pull up without hesitation. He shot nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc while averaging 19.8 points per game to lead the Wildcats.

There is a strong case to be made, however, that Duke forward Jayson Tatum will be the most talented player remaining on the board when it is the Sixers' turn to pick. 

As a basketball beat writer for The Duke Chronicle, I had the opportunity to watch Tatum play up close and in-person for much of the season, seeing him at his best and his worst.

A quick rise
After coming to Durham, N.C. as one of the key pieces of the Blue Devils' top-ranked recruiting class, Tatum suffered a left foot sprain during a preseason practice that kept him out of action until early December. 

But even with what appeared to be a breakout performance against then-No. 24 Florida in early December, he struggled to find a rhythm throughout the first half of the season. Tatum shot only 30 percent from three-point range in his first 13 games.

When the Blue Devils were shocked at home by ACC bottom-feeder N.C. State Jan. 23, I was quick to call out the first-year player — he was not cutting it on the defensive end, and offensively, Tatum had yet to prove himself as a consistent shooting threat.

Down the stretch, however, no freshman came on stronger than Tatum. He scored 28 points on 6-of-7 shooting from distance against Virginia in February, averaged 22 points in four ACC tournament wins in March, and notched a double-double in his first career NCAA tournament game.

Whatever questions scouts have about Tatum's potential, he has already shown an ability to develop in a short period of time. Even if Tatum takes time to develop as an NBA player, it probably won't take all that long as the Sixers continue their rebuild.

Cool customer
In a deep ACC, Tatum was one of just two first-year players to earn all-conference honors, picking up a third-team spot in early March. He was also second in ACC Freshman of the Year voting behind N.C. State's Dennis Smith.

Tatum been a consistent performer at the charity stripe — unlike Jackson, who shot just 56.6 percent from the line. He hit on 118 of 139 free-throw attempts (84.9 percent) and has the body to get to the line at will with strong drives to the rim.

Although the Sixers have budding stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, they lack a true end-of-game threat who can score both inside and out. Tatum's improving outside shot combined with a powerful inside game could give the Sixers an option that will stretch opposing defenses.

Defensive concerns
As has been the case with a few recent young Duke prospects (e.g. Brandon Ingram, Jabari Parker), Tatum at times struggled on defense. As Sixers fans know all too well, Jahlil Okafor has the same problem. The former Blue Devil standout led Duke in scoring during his lone collegiate season but wasn't a major factor on defense and has been even worse with the Sixers, ranking 324th of 486 NBA players in defensive win shares last season.

Tatum's numbers suggest he has potential to be a better defender than many might expect. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Tatum had a 3.2 block percentage and a 2.3 steal percentage — an uncommon combination. He helped Duke limit North Carolina's Justin Jackson to only 6-for-22 shooting in an ACC tournament semifinal matchup.

Where Tatum needs to grow is guarding away from the ball. He often found himself losing his man on back cuts and long possessions in the half-court.

With the Sixers, the 6-foot-8 Tatum potentially could be the shortest member of a lineup that would feature the 6-foot-9 Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Simmons at 6-foot-10, and the 7-foot Embiid in the middle. Although he will likely need to improve his quickness, Tatum has the size to overwhelm smaller guards and the strength — weighing in at 205 pounds — to match up with most small forwards in the league.

Tatum vs. Jackson
Tatum and Jackson are comparable players in most respects. The two were right next to one another in the ESPN's Class of 2016 rankings behind Harry Giles and put up nearly identical numbers on the offensive end.

Both are considered top-five picks, but the 19-year-old Tatum is younger by more than a year and has room to grow physically. And unlike Jackson, he does not carry the baggage of a criminal property damage misdemeanor from December.

Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel told 97.5 The Fanatic last week that Tatum is "one of the most talented, most gifted offensive guys" he has ever seen. 

Agreed.