Didinger's championship round scouting report

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Didinger's championship round scouting report

Sizing up Sundays NFL conference championship games:

San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons
(Sunday, 3 p.m., FOX)

Key stat: The 49ers rolled up 579 total yards, a franchise postseason record, in their 45-31 win over Green Bay. They gained 323 yards on the ground and controlled the ball for more than 38 minutes, which kept Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' offense off the field.

Hot and cold: 49ers tight end Vernon Davis has just seven catches in the last seven games but he is a freakish talent 6-3, 250 pounds with 4.4 speed who holds the team record for touchdowns by a tight end (35). After seeing how much damage Seattle tight end Zach Miller did to the Atlanta defense (eight catches, 142 yards, one touchdown) the 49ers might expand Davis role in this game.

Momentum: The 49ers have lost their last five playoff games on the road. The last time the 49ers won a playoff game on the road was 1988 when they knocked off the Bears in Chicago, 28-3. Jim Harbaugh (now their coach) was a quarterback with the Bears.

Xs and Os: Atlanta defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was head coach of the 49ers from 2005 until 2008. He is familiar with most of their personnel but he wasnt there to coach Colin Kaepernick, and the young quarterback is the key to this game. Nolan will have to find a way to contain him. Kaepernick ran for 181 yards against Green Bay (most ever by an NFL quarterback). Nolan will play primarily zone coverage so his linebackers and defensive backs can keep their eyes in the backfield.

Intangibles: Matt Ryan finally won his first NFL postseason game against Seattle. He had an up and down game (three touchdown passes, two interceptions) but he made two clutch throws on the final drive to set up the winning field goal. With that burden off his shoulders now, "Matty Ice" may be looser and better against the 49ers.

Injury factor: Atlanta defensive end John Abraham reinjured his ankle last week and played only 15 snaps against Seattle. With Abraham on the bench, the Seahawks' Russell Wilson ran wild in the second half. The Falcons need Abraham at full strength or close to it if they hope to contain Kaepernick.
Player to watch: Safety Donte Whitner is the most underrated player on a very good and very physical 49ers defense. He will be responsible for covering Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez. The future Hall of Famer is Ryans go-to receiver.

Prediction: The Falcons could not stop Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, who totaled 704 yards (502 passing, 202 rushing) and six touchdowns in two games this season. They didnt have much more success with Wilson last week. Now here comes Kaepernick fresh off his record-setting performance against the Pack. This is a very tough matchup for the Falcons, even at home.

49ers 27, Falcons 17

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
(Sunday, 6:30 p.m., CBS)

Key stat: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has 40 postseason touchdown passes, five behind his boyhood idol Joe Montana.

Hot and cold: The Ravens scored 17 or fewer points on the road five times this season. That wont get it done against the Patriots, the NFLs highest scoring offense.

Momentum: Ravens QB Joe Flacco has stepped up his game in the postseason. In the wins over Indianapolis and Denver, Flacco threw five touchdowns with no interceptions. He had an efficiency rating of 120.0 compared to 88.1 in the regular season. Flacco outplayed Brady in last seasons AFC title game, passing for 306 yards and two touchdowns.

Xs and Os: Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith has developed into a game-changing deep threat. He had two touchdown catches against the Broncos, burning veteran Champ Bailey in the process, and he scored three touchdowns in the last two games against the Patriots. The threat of his deep speed creates space underneath for tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, who have combined for nine catches in the postseason.

Intangibles: The Ravens have rallied around linebacker Ray Lewis, who will retire after this season. The desire to win it for Ray is a strong motivator for the team and the future Hall of Famer is doing his part by playing inspired football (17 tackles against Denver). The Ravens also remember last seasons bitter 23-20 loss to the Patriots in the conference final. This is their chance for payback.

Injury factor: The Patriots are without tight end Rob Gronkowski (broken forearm) and may be missing running back Danny Woodhead (thumb), so that takes away two of the teams best receivers, but Brady still has plenty of weapons in Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd (who had nine catches for 108 yards against the Ravens earlier this season).

Player to watch: When the Ravens have beaten the Patriots three years ago in the playoffs and again this season Ray Rice was the key. He had an 83-yard scoring run to open the playoff game and he ran for 101 yards and a touchdown in the 31-30 win this season. When the Ravens lost to the Pats in the conference final last season, Rice was a non-factor (67 yards). They need to get him going in both the running and passing game.

Prediction: The Ravens play the Patriots tough, even in Foxborough, but you have to wonder how their aging defense will hold up this week. Denver had success running a hurry-up offense against Baltimore last week and the Ravens' defense has played 184 snaps the last two games. With Brady cranking up the tempo, it will be hard for Lewis and company to keep pace.

Patriots 30, Ravens 20

E-mail Ray Didinger at viewfromthehall@comcast.net

Nerlens Noel posts thankful message to Philly fans

Nerlens Noel posts thankful message to Philly fans

Nerlens Noel's tenure in Philadelphia wasn't characterized by a whole lot of winning, but he'll still likely be remembered fondly by Sixers fans as being one of the original members of the process.

It's always an emotional time when a fan favorite departs for another city and a new team instead of seeing the championship aspirations many had for them in Philly through to fruition.

Noel posted an emotional message to his Twitter account on Thursday evening thanking the city of Philadelphia and its fans for the support they showed him through the ups and downs. 

The tweet contained the hashtag #Philly with a couple of exclamation points with a screenshot of a note that read:

What an exciting journey it’s been… To have such an amazing city embrace a kid from Boston coming out of Kentucky the way y’all did, is something I’ll truly never forget. And even through the ups and downs I never doubted the love here and that won’t change. Thank you to everybody that’s believed in me and supported through #TheProcess.

Love! -NN4

Noel was traded earlier in the day to the Dallas Mavericks for Justin Anderson, Andrew Bogut, and a conditional first round pick that will likely turn into two second round picks.

Bryan Colangelo will address the media on Friday morning to discuss his rationale behind moving Nerlens.

Related:

>>Every reason why the Nerlens Noel trade was unjustifiable 

>>Video: Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid say their goodbyes 

>>Joel Embiid reacts to Nerlens trade on Twitter: 'Trust it'

Joel Embiid: With Mavs, Nerlens Noel 'to get the chance he wanted'

Joel Embiid: With Mavs, Nerlens Noel 'to get the chance he wanted'

CAMDEN, N.J. -- Nerlens Noel emerged from the trainer’s room in a red sweatshirt and made his rounds of handshakes and hugs. It would be his last time in the Sixers' training complex as a member of the team, marking the end of the longest-tenured player’s stay in Philadelphia.

The Sixers traded Noel to the Mavericks on Thursday for Justin Anderson, Andrew Bogut and a top-18 protected first-round pick, according to a source (see story). He went through a portion of practice and was removed from it because of the deal. 

Noel’s now former teammates had a strong reaction to his departure. 

“Nerlens, he’s my guy,” Joel Embiid said. “He’s been my best friend since I got to Philly and I’m happy for him. He wants to start. I think in Dallas he’s going to get the chance to start and they’re going to re-sign him and they’re going to pay him a lot of money. Here it was kind of hard for him to start unless they were starting us together. But I’m happy for him. He’s going to get the chance he wanted.”

Noel’s future with the Sixers had been in question for two years as he enters restricted free agency this summer. Last season, the team struggled to find a way for him and Jahlil Okafor, both true centers, to play together. This season, the logjam was magnified when Embiid made his debut and took over the starting role. 

Noel candidly spoke out about the overcrowding at the beginning of the season but that situation was sidetracked when he missed 23 games because of injury. Once he returned, he quickly was on the short end of minutes. 

“I need to be on the court playing basketball,” Noel said in mid-December. “I think I’m too good to be playing eight minutes. Like, no, that’s crazy. That’s crazy. That’s crazy. They need to figure this s--- out.”

The Sixers did figure out his role, later making him the defensive leader of the second unit as Okafor became the odd man out. The Sixers also considered the possibility of pairing Noel and Embiid in the starting lineup, as they did with Embiid and Okafor, but that experiment played out only over a handful of minutes. 

“I’m a little bit disappointed,” Embiid said of not playing more alongside Noel. “I thought we should have tried that a little bit more. I think the few times we did, it actually looked pretty good offensively and defensively.”

Of the bigs, it seemed like Okafor would be the one moved at the deadline after being held out of two games because of trade talks. In the end, it was Noel as the one to go on Thursday. 

“He’s one of my favorite players here,” Dario Saric said. “He’s always ready for jokes, he’s always ready to enjoy every moment.” 

Noel was the only player remaining from Brown’s first season as head coach with the Sixers. Brown could not comment on the Noel trade because it was not official at the time he addressed the media. 

Ilyasova leadership missed
On Wednesday night the Sixers dealt Ersan Ilyasova to the Hawks for Tiago Splitter, a 2017 second-round pick and 2017 second-round pick swap rights. Even though Ilyasova played only 53 games for the Sixers, the veteran leader left his mark.

“He was a consummate pro,” Brown said. “He helped teach our young guys about that professionalism and helped contribute to our culture. He was good. You add those things up and we’re going to miss him.” 

Ilyasova’s departure affects those who played with him and behind him. Embiid credited Ilyasova for stretching the floor when they were in the starting lineup together. 

Saric, though, is perhaps the most impacted by the trade. Saric moved to the second unit when Ilyasova took over the starting role. He learned from his fellow international power forward, who helped him adjust to the NBA on and off the court. Saric is likely to get the nod as a starter. 

“For me, it’s hard,” Saric said. “I lost in Ersan some kind of mentor.” 

Brown also plans to play Robert Covington and Richaun Holmes at power forward at times, as well. If Covington slides over from small forward, Brown eyes Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Gerald Henderson and Nik Stauskas as players who could fill in at the three spot. 

The Sixers will resume activity on Friday morning for shootaround ahead of their game against the Wizards. They will approach that contest without familiar faces on the court. 

“I lost two good friends,” Saric said. “But this is the NBA. This is part of the business, part of the job.”