49ers rally to advance to the Super Bowl

986291.jpg

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."

Chooch was 'a fireball,' says Ryan Howard, last of the '08 Phillies

Chooch was 'a fireball,' says Ryan Howard, last of the '08 Phillies

NEW YORK — Phillies players were greeted by a message from Carlos Ruiz when they entered the visiting clubhouse at Citi Field on Friday.

“I will miss all of you guys. Good luck the rest of the season. Love you all, Chooch! Gracias,” (see story).

Ruiz did not actually write those words on the whiteboard by the entry to the clubhouse, but they were his. He reached out to visiting clubhouse manager Tony Carullo and asked that the message be written in just that way.

Ruiz, 37, was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday, ending an 11-season run with the Phillies that included five NL East titles, a World Series championship, an All-Star Game, a slew of clutch hits, many words of praise from the pitching staff and a million calls of Choooooch from fans in the stands (see story).

“Everybody loved Chooch for a number of reasons,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “He’s the kind of guy you loved seeing every day, a hard-working, humble and appealing human being.

“I’d like to think when he’s done playing, the Phillies might have a place for him.”

Mackanin paused and laughed.

“As long as they don’t make him manager and he takes my job.”

Ruiz’s exit leaves Ryan Howard as the only member of the 2008 World Series championship team still with the club. Over the last few seasons, Howard has seen Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels and Chase Utley depart.

It’s a topic that Howard seems to have grown weary of talking about.

“I've had to hear about it every year,” he said. “It's again the same thing. You play with guys your entire career and now you see them in different uniforms. It's definitely going to be something to get used to but that's baseball. That's the business aspect of it. Teams make moves and that's what happens.”

Like the rest of the core of that team, Howard, 36, has been available for trade the last few seasons, but there has been no real interest because of his decline in performance and huge salary.

So he will play out the final six weeks of his contract and try to hook on elsewhere next season.

Howard saluted his former teammate, Ruiz.

“I'm trying to think of the right words,” he said.

“The thing about Chooch — he was the quarterback in a sense. The way he handled the pitching staff, the way he prepared himself for games with the pitchers, from the defensive standpoint knowing different situations, knowing what guy you want to beat you, what guy you don't want to beat you. Just the way he played the game, he was a fireball. He was a fireball out there. I'm definitely going to miss him. I hit him up yesterday a little bit after I found out. I was happy for him and wanted to wish him the best.

“Chooch, he was always very, very positive. Always trying to help guys out, trying to pick guys up when he can and it carried over onto the field. That was his mentality.”

The Phillies acquired veteran backup catcher A.J. Ellis, minor-league pitcher Tommy Bergjans and a player to be named later for Ruiz (see story). Ellis is due to join the team Saturday. In the meantime, the Phillies added prospect Jorge Alfaro from Double A (see story). He will be the backup catcher Friday night, then return to a talent-rich Reading club that has the best record in minor-league baseball and a date with the Eastern League playoffs.

Jordan Matthews sticks up for beleaguered Eagles wide receivers

Jordan Matthews sticks up for beleaguered Eagles wide receivers

Jordan Matthews is probably the only Eagles wide receiver you feel remotely good about right now.

Nelson Agholor and Josh Huff are draft picks who haven’t accomplished much yet. Rueben Randle and Chris Givens are veteran offseason pickups who’ve shown little this preseason (see story). Dorial Green-Beckham is a former second-round pick whose first team gave up on him after just one year.

It’s not a group that inspires a whole lot of confidence right now. 

Potential? Sure. But opening day is 16 days away, there’s only one preseason game left for the starters to play, Sam Bradford has two guys to throw to — Matthews and Zach Ertz — and potential is a scary word at this point.

Matthews isn’t a superstar at this point. He’s a solid pro who seems to be getting better. His 1,862 yards are 10th most in NFL history after two seasons. 

But compared to the Eagles’ other receivers, he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

He's got credibility and because of that the 24-year-old Matthews has become a spokesman for the entire group. And this past week, two games into the preseason, he found himself in the position of having to defend this entire beleaguered bunch of wide receivers the Eagles have put together.

“The funniest thing is last year [the receivers] played extremely well in the preseason, got into the season, didn’t play well, and everybody’s like, 'Preseason doesn’t matter,'" Matthews said.

"Then the first preseason game we don’t play well, everybody’s like, 'The preseason matters, you guys suck!' Hold on … I thought it didn’t matter. You know what I’m saying?”

What he's saying is it's too early to write this group off. Maybe Huff and Agholor and Randle and Givens — or whichever among them makes the team — will turn it on once the regular season begins.

But going into the Colts game Saturday evening at Lucas Oil Stadium, the numbers are not pretty.

Huff and Randle both have three catches for 13 yards. Agholor has two catches for 30 yards. Givens is 0 for 0.

Matthews hasn’t played yet in the preseason because of a knee injury, and the next four receivers have a combined 56 receiving yards in two preseason games.

Paul Turner, an undrafted rookie, leads the group with nine catches for 78 yards. 

Improvement? Matthews sees it.

“I take this approach,” Matthews said this week. “Every rep counts. And so if every rep counts, what are we trying to do? We’re trying to do better the next rep, and I felt like guys took steps forward for the next rep. And that’s the main thing you always want to see, that improvement.

“I understand it’s the NFL, I understand obviously people are going to say you get paid a lot of money to do one thing, but I’ll tell you what, I know the guys in that room, they want to do well. None of those guys went into that game wanting to mess up or not put their best foot forward.”

Probably no recent draft pick has infuriated Eagles fans as much as Agholor. Well, other than maybe Marcus Smith and Danny Watkins. And Lane Johnson maybe.

But it’s tough for some to be patient with Agholor when Jeremy Maclin had 773 yards as a rookie, DeSean Jackson had 912 and Matthews had 872.

Heck, even Reggie Brown (571 yards) and undrafted Hank Baskett (464) were factors as rookie wideouts.

Agholor’s 283 yards last season rank tied for 27th out of 32 wide receivers drafted in the first round over the past 10 years.

But he has a big-time supporter in Matthews.

“I felt like the jump he made from the first game to the second game [was significant]," Matthews said "Even the stuff you don’t see. Blocking? [Darren] Sproles caught a short pass and Nelson turned his route around … he ran a great route, got open, turned around, blocked and probably sprung Sproles for another 10, 15 yards.

“He had another bubble situation where he had to block for Josh and he did. Definitely better than the first game, and that’s what you want to see. That’s the biggest thing. And it gets lost in the shuffle.”

That Sproles play, a 21-yard gain, was called back because of a penalty on rookie guard Isaac Seumalo.

But Matthews is passionate when he talks about how Agholor’s lack of production as a rookie doesn’t mean anything moving forward.

“I don’t know if y’all know this, but I love Jordy Nelson (Packers Pro Bowl receiver),” Matthews said. “I love him. One of my favorite receivers. Jordy Nelson didn’t have 1,000 yards till Year 4.

“Let’s put it in perspective. Guys get better. And I feel like that’s what I want to see from my group. Are guys getting better?

“There’s two things that I really look for from my group — attitude and effort. And do Nelson and Chris and Josh and those guys bring great attitude and effort?

“Yes. That’s what I want to see, and I feel that’s what we’ve shown.”

Soul's Clint Dolezel shares Coach of the Year award with Rattlers' Kevin Guy

Soul's Clint Dolezel shares Coach of the Year award with Rattlers' Kevin Guy

For the third time in five seasons, the Soul and Arizona Rattlers will compete in the ArenaBowl. Prior to Friday night's 7 p.m. matchup, the leaders of both squads, Soul coach Clint Dolezel and Rattlers coach Kevin Guy, were each named Marcum Moss Coach of the Year.

Dolezel and Guy will share the award but not the ArenaBowl trophy, which the Soul haven't won since their lone triumph in 2008 over the San Jose Sabercats. Dolezel, who has been at the helm since August 2012, led the Soul to the ArenaBowl in 2012 and 2013 but lost to the Rattlers on both occasions.

This season, Dolezel, who spent over a decade as a quarterback in the AFL, coached the Soul to a 13-3 regular-season record. The team advanced to the ArenaBowl with a dramatic win in the American Conference championship game over the Jacksonville Sharks.

Dolezel also earned the Coach of the Year award last season for guiding the Soul to a 15-3 overall mark and a conference championship game appearance.

“Without a question, Clint is one of the best offensive minds in AFL history,” Soul majority owner Ron Jaworski said in a press release. “His success is attributed to a great deal of preparation and hard work. To make a playoff appearance every year as a head coach shows his dedication and willingness to win.”