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

Instant Replay: Mets 9, Phillies 4

Instant Replay: Mets 9, Phillies 4

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK – The New York Mets clubbed four home runs on their way to pounding the Phillies, 9-4, at Citi Field on Friday night.
 
Phillies starter Adam Morgan gave up six runs, all on homers.
 
Meanwhile, the Phillies’ bats did little against 43-year-old Mets starter Bartolo Colon for the first seven innings and by that time they were down by eight runs.
 
The Mets are in the thick of the NL wild-card chase and have won five of their last six. The Phillies have lost six of their last nine.
 
The Mets are 20-9 against the Phillies over the last two seasons.
 
Starting pitching report
Morgan was tagged for three home runs, including a grand slam with two outs in the bottom of the fifth. He gave up back-to-back homers on his first five pitches to open the bottom of the first inning.
 
In all, the lefty allowed eight hits, including five for extra bases, in his five innings of work. He dropped to 1-8 and his ERA rose to 6.50.
 
The grand slam was hit by Wilmer Flores on a first-pitch slider. Morgan threw nine pitches before walking Neil Walker, the previous batter, to extend the inning. One of those pitches was foul pop down the right-field line that first baseman Ryan Howard could not chase down. Had he been able to make a play, Morgan would have gotten out of the inning unscathed.
 
Colon allowed four runs over seven-plus innings. Three of them came when he failed to retire a batter in the eighth. Colon is 12-7 with a 3.44 ERA. He is 9-3 with a 2.98 ERA against the Phillies as a member of the Mets.
 
Bullpen report
Frank Herrmann gave up three runs in two innings of work.
 
Hansel Robles, Sean Gilmartin and Jeurys Familia closed it out after Colon exited.
 
At the plate
The Phillies did not have a hit until Odubel Herrera’s one-out double in the fifth. He scored on a two-out single by Morgan. The Phils had just three hits through seven innings. Cesar Hernandez and Aaron Altherr teamed to drive in three runs with a pair of doubles off Colon in the eighth.
 
The Mets had 11 hits, four of which were homers. Asdrubal Cabrera homered from both sides of plate for the Mets.
 
Colon helped himself with a double, a single and two runs scored.
 
Jay Bruce was the only Met to struggle. He struck out four times.

Transaction
The Phillies brought up catcher Jorge Alfaro from Double A. The plan is to send him back Saturday when newcomer A.J. Ellis arrives and assumes the second catcher duties. Ellis was acquired from the Dodgers in the Carlos Ruiz trade Thursday. The trade left Howard as the lone member of the 2008 World Series championship still with the club. Howard can deal with it (see story).
 
Up next
Jeremy Hellickson (10-7, 3.60) opposes hard-throwing Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard (11-7, 2.61) on Saturday night.

NFL Notes: All-Pro safety Eric Berry to report to Chiefs Sunday

NFL Notes: All-Pro safety Eric Berry to report to Chiefs Sunday

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- All-Pro safety Eric Berry plans to report to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, giving him two weeks and one preseason game to prepare for the start of the regular season.

A person familiar with his plans told The Associated Press that Berry will join the team after its preseason game Saturday in Chicago. The person spoke on condition of anonymity Friday because he was not authorized to discuss Berry's plans publicly.

Berry was given the franchise tag early in the offseason but has not signed the deal, which means he could skip all of training camp without being fined. Once he signs the one-year contract, he will make just over $10.8 million, making him the league's highest-paid safety.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey have said all along they expect Berry to report ahead of the regular season, but it was never clear when that might happen.

Kansas City plays its first regular-season game Sept. 11 against San Diego.

"I think it's important to see what kind of shape he is in and then gradually bring him back into the football speed of things," Reid said Tuesday, when asked what Berry will need to do to get up to speed. "I don't think it's the end of the world if he doesn't play in the last preseason game (see full story).

Falcons: 1st-round pick Neal to have knee surgery
ATLANTA -- Atlanta Falcons rookie strong safety Keanu Neal, the team's first-round pick and a projected starter, will miss the beginning of the season with a knee injury.

Neal will have arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on Monday and is expected to miss three to four weeks, according to the Falcons. Coach Dan Quinn said he is encouraged Neal avoided a more serious injury that could have kept him out longer.

"Hopefully it's a shorter-term injury where we're looking at two and hopefully the worst would be three games," Quinn said, adding that he knows Neal will work for a quick return because "he's kind of just built that way."

Wide receiver Julio Jones is expected to be limited in practice after leaving Thursday night's game in the second quarter with an ankle injury. Quinn said he the injury is not expected to threaten Jones' status for the regular season.

Neal hurt his knee in the first quarter of the Falcons' 17-6 preseason loss to the Miami Dolphins. He had to be helped off the field but walked to the locker room without assistance (see full story).

Ravens: Former Navy star Reynolds finds NFL life 'humbling'
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Keenan Reynolds' foray into the NFL has overwhelmingly altered his perspective of the game.

As a standout quarterback at Navy, Reynolds was revered in Annapolis. He ran for an NCAA-record 88 touchdowns, went 4-0 against Army and finished fifth in the 2015 Heisman Trophy balloting.

However, his prowess at running the triple option is of no help in his quest to make the Baltimore Ravens. Fighting for a job as a backup receiver and special teams contributor, Reynolds is just another rookie buried deep on the depth chart.

"It's very humbling," he acknowledged. "I'm just trying to make the best of it."

At Navy, Reynolds ran, handed off or threw the football. His job now is to catch it.

"I have a lot more respect for the position of wide receiver," he said, "especially after being a quarterback."

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.