NFC South: Michael Crabtree


Perhaps no two teams in the NFC are more alike than the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers, who meet at 1:05 p.m. ET on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium for the right to advance to the NFC Championship Game.

They both have big, physical, mobile quarterbacks.

They both have offenses built around the running game.

They both rely on physical, highly ranked defenses built around stopping the run first.

Their regular-season meeting at Candlestick Park showed just how close they are. Carolina won 10-9 on Nov. 10 in one of the more physical games of the season.

The rematch has all the ingredients to be just as close and physical.

ESPN.com Panthers reporters David Newton and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson are here to break it down.

Newton: Bill, hope you have thawed out from the trip to Green Bay. The first game between these teams was an old-fashioned NFC bruiser. Do you see the rematch being anything different?

Williamson: You're right, David, the first 49ers-Panthers matchup was one of the most physical games of the 2013 NFL season. I think we are going to see a similar game. These teams are similar, and are both really good teams. So this is going to be another close, physical game.

I do think more points will be scored. A huge difference for the 49ers is they will have receiver Michael Crabtree this time, and you have to assume tight end Vernon Davis won't leave this game early, as he did in the Nov. 10 meeting. Crabtree has made this a different team since he returned Dec. 1 from a torn Achilles. He had his best game of the season last week at Green Bay with eight catches for 125 yards. David, do you think the Panthers are prepared to deal with Crabtree?

Newton: They better be, or it could be a long day. I suspect they will take a similar approach to their Dec. 22 victory over New Orleans, which has talented receivers and Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham. And remember, Crabtree was facing a Green Bay defense that was ranked 24th against the pass and 25th overall. Carolina's defense ranks sixth against the pass and second overall. That's a significant difference.

To me it doesn't come down to Crabtree as much as it does to the pass rush. Carolina led the league in sacks with 60 and has 15 in the past two games. The Panthers will try to push quarterback Colin Kaepernick out of his comfort zone like they did in the first meeting, when they sacked him six times. The secondary is a huge part of that. They mix things up with complicated zone coverages that make it difficult for receivers. They also are physical with them. To stand a chance, the Panthers have to duplicate the kind of effort they had in the first game. If they pressure Kaepernick that way again, Crabtree won't be as effective.

Speaking of quarterbacks, the 49ers did a nice job on Cam Newton in the first game. This will be Newton's first playoff game. Are the 49ers worried about him?

Williamson: The 49ers certainly respect Newton and are wary of him. But I don't think they are overly fretting about him. The 49ers just beat Aaron Rodgers. He's the best quarterback in the NFL. So they can handle Newton.

I think what gives the 49ers confidence that they can continue to have success against Newton is that their defense is so athletic. So it matches up well against Newton. He did come up with some big third-down passes against the 49ers. So San Francisco has to find a way to keep him from making clutch plays. That means the 49ers have to keep pressure on him throughout the down. If Newton athletically beats the 49ers, they will have a tough day.

David, my last question for you is: What do you think the Panthers can do overall to ensure they move on to the NFC title game?

Newton: Bill, because I see the defense doing its part, for me it all comes down to Newton. As left tackle Jordan Gross said this season, as Newton goes, so go the Panthers. This will be his biggest challenge on his biggest stage, but he's a lot more confident now than he was the first time these teams met. He has since engineered last-minute, game-winning drives to beat New England, Miami and New Orleans. I believe you'll see him throw caution to the wind when it comes to running. Having favorite receiver Steve Smith back will help as well. If Newton can handle the big-game atmosphere as he did in college, the Panthers have a chance. Having said that, what do the 49ers have to do?

Williamson: San Francisco has to take advantage of what it has now, but didn't have when it last played Carolina -- and that’s better offensive weapons. Crabtree has been back for six weeks, and the offense is much better. Having a healthy Davis makes the 49ers better in this game, as well. But they can't spoil those advantages. San Francisco must find the end zone a couple of times. The 49ers had just three field goals against the Panthers in November, and settling for field goals has been an issue all season.

Because points are going to be at such a premium, the 49ers have to do what it takes to find the end zone, at least two times in this game. If not, another close loss to Carolina might be on the horizon.

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Darren Sproles and Patrick WillisUSA TODAY Sports, Icon SMIThe Saints and Darren Sproles, left, will try to control the ball against Patrick Willis and the 49ers.
The New Orleans Saints are heading into this week’s showdown against the San Francisco 49ers as the much hotter team. They just totaled 49 points, 625 yards and an NFL-record 40 first downs in a 49-17 rout of the Dallas Cowboys this past week, and the 49ers' offense fell flat in a 10-9 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

However, the Saints (7-2) aren't about to take this game lightly. Not only does it have huge playoff implications in the NFC race, but the 49ers (6-3) have proved to be an extremely difficult matchup for the Saints the past two years. They beat the Saints 36-32 in a playoff game at San Francisco after the 2011 season, then beat the Saints 31-21 at New Orleans in the regular season last year.

San Francisco's physical defense has been able to disrupt New Orleans' potent offense with sacks and turnovers, and the 49ers' rushing offense has been able to keep Drew Brees & Co. off the field.

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson break down the clash of styles in this week's Double Coverage:

Triplett: Bill, the 49ers' offense looks pretty one-dimensional this season. I know the Saints will be wary of their rushing attack, since New Orleans' defense has been inconsistent against the run. But what happened to San Francisco's passing attack (ranked 32nd in the NFL at 173.9 yards per game)? I expected a lot more from Colin Kaepernick.

Williamson: I can see your point, Mike, especially this week. Take a glance at Kaepernick's yardage numbers and you'd have to be disappointed. But, in a pure football sense, he is playing well overall. His Total QBR is a whopping 81.7 in the 49ers' six wins. He plays well within the system, and he has been efficient. He has suffered from being without his top 2012 target, Michael Crabtree, all season, and Mario Manningham has played just one game.

Still, there is no doubt Kaepernick could improve in his progressions, and he needs to start taking over some games. In Week 10, the entire offense faltered and Kaepernick was unable to impose his will. Great quarterbacks do that. Mike, do you anticipate the Saints being able to control Kaepernick?

Triplett: I'm curious to find that out. The Saints haven't been tested much by the read-option yet this season, but they're about to play Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton (twice) in the next six weeks. The Saints' run defense, in general, has been a little shaky in recent weeks. The Saints aren't getting pounded up the middle, but they have had a handful of breakdowns in recent weeks that led to big gains by opposing runners. They lost a game at the New York Jets two weeks ago because they let Chris Ivory get loose too many times -- even though they knew he was coming. So they'll need to be a lot more disciplined against the 49ers' dual threat of Kaepernick and Frank Gore.

On the flip side, Bill, few defenses have beat up on the Saints the way the 49ers have the past two years. Do they still pack the same punch this season? Can they slow down a Saints offense that was on fire the other night?

Williamson: What does "slow down the Saints' offense" mean? Holding them to 30 points? I'm sure the Saints will make their share of big plays. The always do. But this San Francisco defense will also make some plays of its own.

This defense is stellar. It was dominant against Carolina in a loss. The Panthers had one broken play for a touchdown and a 53-yard field goal. In the past six games, the 49ers have given up a total of 71 points. The 49ers are a ball-hawking, smart, tough defense. It will give the Saints all they can handle, especially if rookie safety Eric Reid -- of nearby LSU -- is cleared to play after suffering his second concussion of the season last week. Mike, do you think the 49ers' defense can slow this first-down-machine offense?

Triplett: Well, we've seen the 49ers do it in each of the past two years. Last season they sacked Drew Brees five times and intercepted him twice. In the 2011 playoff game, they had three sacks and forced five turnovers overall. So if they just do that, they’re in good shape, right?

Obviously the Saints will make ball control a huge priority. And they've proven they can do that this year. They're tied for second in the NFL with only 10 giveaways. And their patient game plan in a victory at Chicago in Week 5 comes to mind as a good blueprint. I'd expect them to feed Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Jimmy Graham a lot in the passing game. The offensive line has been more inconsistent this season, allowing 20 sacks. But it played its best game the other night.

How worried should they be about pass-rusher Aldon Smith? I know he was limited in his return last week. How much impact should we expect from him Sunday?

Williamson: I can't say for certain, but I expect Smith to play a full game Sunday. He played about a dozen snaps -- mostly as an inside down pass-rusher -- against Carolina after missing five games while seeking treatment for substance abuse. The team wanted to ease him back in. Smith has said he is ready to be a full-time player again, and the 49ers will need all the reinforcements possible against Brees. So, I'd be surprised if Smith makes another cameo appearance.

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NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The major question facing each team in the NFC South as summer break looms.

Atlanta Falcons. Is the pass rush good enough? The Falcons replaced John Abraham with Osi Umenyiora. That might end up being something close to an even trade. But, just like when the Falcons had Abraham, you have to wonder who else might be able to generate a pass rush. Kroy Biermann is versatile and could bring some pressure from either defensive end or outside linebacker. But the Falcons really need one of their young defensive ends to step up. Second-year pro Jonathan Massaquoi appears to be the leading candidate for that.

Carolina Panthers. Who will be the starters in the defensive backfield? Aside from Charles Godfrey at one safety spot, that question remains wide open. The Panthers don’t have a clear starter at the other safety spot or at either cornerback spot. Veteran Mike Mitchell is one option at safety, but the team has been very impressed by rookie Robert Lester. The cornerback situation is even less clear. Captain Munnerlyn is a lock to be among the top three corners, but Drayton Florence, Josh Thomas, Josh Norman and D.J. Campbell appear to be competing for the other spots. The winners will have to distinguish themselves in training camp and the preseason.

New Orleans Saints. Where’s the pass rush going to come from? Just when it seemed like we were getting some clarity on this, it’s become a bigger question than ever before. Outside linebacker Victor Butler, who had a strong minicamp and played for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in Dallas, went down with a torn ACL this week. The Saints firmly believed Butler was going to be a force. Now, they have to look at alternatives. Martez Wilson, Junior Galette and rookie Rufus Johnson all have some potential. But none of them are a sure thing. The Saints could end up bringing in a veteran that’s released somewhere else in the preseason if they don’t like what they’re seeing from the young linebackers.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Are they really set at tight end? All indications are the Bucs are planning on going with Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree as their top two tight ends. That sounds a little dicey because Stocker hasn’t distinguished himself to this point of his career and Crabtree was used sparingly in Green Bay. But the Bucs appear to believe Stocker might be ready to elevate his game and they seem to think Crabtree has upside as a pass-catcher. It still is possible the Bucs could bring in a tight end, but that position doesn’t appear to be all that important in their passing game.

Final Word: 49ers at Falcons

January, 18, 2013
1/18/13
1:30
PM ET
NFC Championship: 49ers-Falcons AFC Championship: Ravens-Patriots

Five nuggets of knowledge about Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons:

[+] EnlargeTony Gonzalez
AP Photo/Perry KnottsWill the 49ers see Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez line up in the slot or as a tight end in the NFC title game?
Staying grounded: San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick is not a good matchup for the Atlanta defense. Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards against the Packers in the divisional round. The Falcons had problems with mobile quarterbacks in the regular season and against Seattle’s Russell Wilson in the divisional round. Quarterbacks have averaged a league-high 8.9 yards per carry against the Falcons. Including the playoffs, the Falcons have faced 42 read-option plays (second-most in the league), according to ESPN Stats & Information. On those plays, the Falcons have done a good job when the quarterback hands off. Running backs averaged 3.9 yards against Atlanta on the read option. But quarterbacks have averaged more than 20 yards per carry.

Been a long time: The Falcons and 49ers have met just once before in the postseason. That was in the 1998 season in a divisional playoff game, which was the first game back for Atlanta coach Dan Reeves after quadruple-bypass surgery. The Falcons won that game 20-18 and went on to make the only Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. The Falcons and 49ers were NFC West rivals until the NFC South was founded in 2002. Since then, the teams have had four regular-season meetings, and the Falcons have won all four.

Comeback kids: The Falcons got the ball with 31 seconds remaining and rallied for a win against Seattle. That marked the third time this season the Falcons started a game-winning drive in the final minute of the fourth quarter. The rest of the league combined for eight such drives. In the past 10 years, the only other teams with multiple game-winning drives that started in the last minute of regulation were the 2010 Jets and 2010 Jaguars, each with two.

Tight end or receiver? Technically, Tony Gonzalez is Atlanta’s tight end and Harry Douglas is the slot receiver. But that’s not always how they line up. Gonzalez has had 55 receptions when lined up in the slot, including three in the divisional playoff.

Red-hot Crabtree: Wide receiver Michael Crabtree has become much more of a factor since Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith as the starting quarterback. When Smith was starting, Crabtree averaged 4.9 receptions and 56.7 receiving yards per game, and had four touchdowns. With Kaepernick, Crabtree has averaged 6.3 receptions and 89.3 yards per game, and has caught seven touchdown passes.
Weatherspoon-KaepernickUSA TODAY SportsAtlanta and San Francisco will square off Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
Coach Mike Smith, quarterback Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons finally have that elusive playoff victory. One more home victory stands between them and the Super Bowl after Atlanta outlasted Seattle in the divisional round.

The San Francisco 49ers, overtime losers in the NFC Championship Game last year, are back on the verge of their first Super Bowl since the 1994 season. That 49ers team won it all with one of the all-time great ex-Falcons, Deion Sanders, playing cornerback for them.

Which team will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this year? NFC West blogger Mike Sando and NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas talked through the possibilities.

Sando: Pat, you just finished watching QBs Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan put on a show in the divisional round. If anyone upstaged them in these playoffs, it was 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick with his 181-yard rushing performance against Green Bay. Kaepernick had 263 yards passing, two passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns. Kaepernick now owns victories over Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers in his first eight starts. It's looking like he's going to be the key variable in this game against the Falcons.

Yasinskas: No doubt, Mike. I'm still trying to process what Kaepernick did against Green Bay, and I'm sure the Falcons are looking hard at that. They have to be worried, especially after what they put on tape against Seattle. They played a great first half, but Seattle QB Russell Wilson exploited them in the second half. The Falcons struggled with QB Cam Newton and the read-option offense in the regular season. The Falcons allowed quarterbacks to run for a league-high 8.9 yards per attempt (excluding kneel-downs) this season. Kaepernick can do the read-option, but the 49ers also can turn to RB Frank Gore in the traditional running game, and they can throw the ball. That's a scary combination, and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is going to have to come up with an innovative game plan against the team he once coached.

Sando: Some NFL coaching people I've spoken with thought the Packers had a horrible plan. Of course, that's easy to say after a team gives up 181 yards rushing to a quarterback. But from this view, it appeared as though the Packers played too much man coverage, turning their backs to Kaepernick and giving him too many free running lanes. Even before Kaepernick became the starter, San Francisco was known around the league for having a higher volume of running plays in its arsenal than other teams do. Kaepernick opens up another dimension. What was the key to Cam Newton's running success against Atlanta this season?

[+] EnlargeMichael Turner
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesMichael Turner averaged 7.0 yards per carry in Sunday's win over Seattle.
Yasinskas: Newton and the Panthers used the read-option pretty much to perfection against Atlanta. Carolina got the defensive ends and linebackers to commit and Newton made the right calls. He's a unique talent, and so is Kaepernick. But I think San Francisco could present even more of a challenge due to Gore. Atlanta's defense had issues with the read-option. But the Falcons weren't all that great against any sort of running game. The Falcons use a lot of nickel packages, and that may put them at a disadvantage against the run. They might have to use a little more of their 4-3 base defense and keep middle linebacker Akeem Dent on the field more.

Sando: The 49ers' offensive personnel are heavier than just about any other team. That will force the Falcons to play their base defense on early downs. I dug up a couple of numbers from ESPN game charts to illustrate the point. The 49ers' opponents played nickel or dime defense on only 128 first- or second-down plays this season; for the Falcons' opponents, that number was 396. Against the Packers' nickel/dime defenses, Kaepernick carried 11 times for 107 yards, including his 20-yard touchdown run. He carried three times for 76 yards against the Packers' base 3-4 personnel. That included his 56-yard run. The 49ers can present matchup problems from their two-tight end offense because Vernon Davis (4.38 40-yard dash) and Delanie Walker (4.49) run well. Davis' 44-yard reception against the Packers was a great sign for San Francisco.

Yasinskas: Yes, I think San Francisco's offense is going to present all sorts of problems for Atlanta's defense. But I think the flip side is that Atlanta's offense is going to present matchup problems, even for a very good 49ers defense. Roddy White and Julio Jones command a lot of attention. But no defense can overlook tight end Tony Gonzalez and slot receiver Harry Douglas. Both are dependable and dangerous, as shown on Atlanta's game-winning drive against Seattle. Those are four very solid weapons. And let's not forget the fact that Atlanta's run game came to life against the Seahawks. If Michael Turner can show up again, San Francisco's defense is going to have its hands full.

Sando: The 49ers have sometimes let Patrick Willis match up with opposing tight ends. Willis has covered pretty well much of the time, in my view. The 49ers gave up a league-low 613 yards to tight ends, but they ranked only 21st in passer rating allowed (98.5) when opponents targeted the position. San Francisco allowed eight touchdown passes to tight ends. Only five teams allowed more. Kyle Rudolph had two scoring catches against San Francisco. Jermichael Finley, David Thomas, Brandon Pettigrew, Anthony McCoy, Anthony Fasano and Aaron Hernandez also caught touchdowns against the 49ers this season. The key for San Francisco will be pressuring Ryan without blitzing. That appears possible now that defensive end Justin Smith is back and playing pretty well.

Yasinskas: Yes, San Francisco's pass rush will be a key to this game. Atlanta's offensive line, which was a problem spot last season, has enjoyed a resurgence this season with the arrival of offensive line coach Pat Hill. He's had the line playing well most of the season, and the unit was particularly good against Seattle. Ryan wasn't sacked and was barely pressured. Hill's biggest accomplishment has been getting a solid season out of left tackle Sam Baker. Baker was a first-round draft pick in 2008. His first four seasons were filled with inconsistency and injuries, but he has stayed healthy this season and has played at a high level. The rest of Atlanta's offensive line doesn't have great individual talent. But Hill has this line blocking well for the passing game. The running game has been a different story. Turner had a big game against Seattle. But during the regular season, he wasn't the same back he was in past years. I think part of it is because age is catching up to him, but part of it is because the run blocking wasn't great. Atlanta has made the transition toward being a pass-first team, and the offensive line is much better at pass blocking than it is at run blocking. Still, coach Mike Smith believes it's important to have a running game, and he's going to try to establish one with Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers against San Francisco.

[+] EnlargeJustin Smith, DuJuan Smith
Jose Luis Villegas/Sacramento Bee/MCTJustin Smith turned in a strong performance Sunday in his first game back from a torn triceps.
Sando: Seattle, despite leading the NFL in fewest points allowed, ranked 30th in yards per rush allowed since Week 7. The Seahawks resorted to risky tactics after losing their best pass-rusher, Chris Clemons, to injury in the wild-card round. Seattle simply couldn't get to Ryan without compromising its coverage. Ryan threw an early pick against DB pressure, but after that, he completed 7 of 8 passes for 111 yards and a score when the Seahawks rushed a member of their secondary, according to ESPN Stats & Information. San Francisco rushed a DB just twice against the Packers on Saturday night. Justin Smith's ability to play 91 percent of the snaps for the 49ers following a triceps injury was huge for San Francisco. The 49ers need him. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith has 19.5 sacks this season, but none since he had two against Miami in Week 14. The 49ers need the Smiths to pick up where they left off before Justin's injury. That is a key to this game.

Yasinskas: Yes, Atlanta's offensive line has to give Ryan time to throw the ball. A lot of Ryan's critics say he doesn't have a strong arm. But I think he has plenty of arm strength and he showed that with his long touchdown pass to White against Seattle. The key for Ryan in the deep game is for his offensive line to give him time. The Falcons like to use play-action, and that will help. But I think it also helps the offensive line that this game is in the Georgia Dome, so false starts won't be a problem. You brought up a good point last week in showing that Ryan's statistics haven't been as good at home as on the road. That's true. But the Falcons need to capitalize Sunday on the home-field advantage. This franchise has been around since 1966, but it's the first time a championship game will be played in Atlanta. After years of playing second fiddle to the Braves and college football, the Falcons have become the biggest thing in town. Fans finally are embracing this team, and the noise in the Georgia Dome could be a big help for the Falcons.

Sando: The 49ers allowed 38 pass plays of 20 or more yards this season. That was tied for third-fewest (Seattle allowed 40, sixth-fewest). I kept waiting for Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor to deliver a game-changing hit. It never happened. Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are the big hitters for the 49ers. They need to be tone-setters down the field. I'm really looking forward to seeing how the physical aspect of this game plays out. That's an area where the 49ers need to win. I tend to think they will, as long as Justin Smith can give them 90 percent playing time once again. How do you see this one going?

Yasinskas: The 49ers probably are the more physical team, and I was very impressed with how they played overall against Green Bay. But following a hunch, I'm taking the Falcons 31-27. I think putting an end to the playoff-win drought will allow Atlanta to be loose and relaxed, especially in the case of Ryan. Playing at home also helps. Atlanta's defense needs to show up for 60 minutes this time. If it does, I think Atlanta has enough offensive firepower to score points even against a good defense and win this game. I see the Falcons going to the Super Bowl for only the second time in franchise history.

Sando: I'm not sure if I feel better or worse about the Falcons after watching that game against Seattle. The Seahawks had zero pass rush and I think that was the difference in the game, particularly at the very end. Looking ahead to Sunday, the Falcons have the more accomplished quarterback, but so did the Packers and Patriots and Saints. Kaepernick beat them all. I would give the Falcons the edge at receiver despite Michael Crabtree's development. Atlanta has the better kicker. I'd give the 49ers an edge on the offensive and defensive lines, at linebacker and in the secondary. We were talking about Tony Gonzalez earlier. Great player, but would he even start for the 49ers? Not over Vernon Davis, crazy as that sounds. San Francisco is better at running back, too. Maybe the Falcons will pull out another wild one at home, but I just think the 49ers are better. I'll take them to win it 30-17. If the Falcons win, they were better than I thought at every step this season.

Looking ahead to 49ers-Falcons

January, 14, 2013
1/14/13
1:38
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ATLANTA -- I’m getting ready to fly back to NFC South blog headquarters. I’ll check back in late this afternoon with updates on what Falcons coach Mike Smith had to say in his Monday news conference and anything else that pops up.

But, as I travel, let me leave you with some nuggets from ESPN Stats & Information to look ahead to Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the 49ers and Falcons:
  • This will be the second postseason meeting between the two teams. The first was when the Falcons beat the 49ers, 20-18, in the divisional round in the 1998 season. That’s the season the Falcons went to their only Super Bowl.
  • The Falcons and 49ers used to be NFC West rivals. Since leaving for the NFC South in 2002, the Falcons are 4-0 against the 49ers.
  • This will be the 14th NFC Championship Game for the 49ers. They’re 5-8 in those games and have lost two straight and five of their last six.
  • The 49ers set a postseason franchise record with 579 yards of total offense in their divisional round victory against Green Bay. That’s the fourth-highest postseason total in NFL history.
  • San Francisco’s 323 rushing yards against Green Bay were the most in the postseason by any team since the Falcons in the 2004 divisional round.
  • San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh is the fourth coach in history to reach a championship game in each of his first two seasons. George Seifert and Barry Switzer each went 1-1 in those games and Rex Ryan went 0-2.
  • In the win against Green Bay, the 49ers gained 176 yards on 16 read-option rushes. In quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s seven previous starts, the 49ers gained 140 yards on 26 read-option runs.
  • Since Kaepernick became the starter in Week 11, Michael Crabtree ranks fifth in the league with 50 catches, fourth with 714 receiving yards and is tied for second with seven touchdowns. In the first 10 weeks of the season, Crabtree was tied for 41st in the league with just 59 targets.
  • In their history, the Falcons are 7-11 in the postseason. They’ve won two playoff games in a season only once. That came in the 1998 season.
  • Including Sunday’s victory against Seattle, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan has completed 70 percent of his passes in the final two minutes of either half this season. In the first four seasons of Ryan’s career, he completed only 50 percent of his passes in the final two minutes of either half.
  • Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez got the first playoff win of his 16-year career against Seattle. Gonzalez went into the game with 254 regular-season appearances, the most ever without a playoff victory.
  • Including the Seattle game, the Falcons have allowed 8.9 yards per rush by quarterbacks (excluding kneeldowns) this season. That’s the worst average in the NFL. Kaepernick has averaged 8.7 yards per rush, the best average by any quarterback with at least 30 rushes.

There’s a development in the Saints' bounty story, and this one has people talking.

Yahoo! first reported about an incendiary speech former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams made to Saints defensive players the night before his last game with the team, a playoff loss to San Francisco in January. A documentary filmmaker, who is working on a film on former New Orleans player Steve Gleason, taped the speech and released it. ESPN's Mike & Mike talked about it this morning.

There are comments from Williams that are going to cause a big stir. Here are highlights:

“Kill the head and the body will die. We’ve got to do everything in the world to make sure we kill Frank Gore’s head. We want him running sideways. We want his head sideways.’’

“We need to find out in the first two series of the game ... that little wide receiver, No. 10 (Kyle Williams), about his concussion. We need to [expletive] put a lick on him right now.

“[Receiver Michael Crabtree] becomes human when we take out that outside ACL.’’

You can make the case that this is simply a coach trying to fire up his players, and bounties aren't specifically mentioned.

[+] EnlargeGregg Williams
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliFormer Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams delivered a controversial speech before the team's Jan. 14 playoff game against the 49ers.
But, in light of all that's gone on, I don't see anything good coming out of this for the Saints or Williams. The one thing I’ll defend Williams on just a little bit is the part about Gore’s head. I don’t think Williams told his players to injure Gore’s head. He just told them to make Gore ineffective by getting him to run sideways. This is a common speech among coaches -- cut off a snake’s head, the body will die. Still, it sounds terrible to be talking about a player’s head, even in a figurative sense, considering everything that’s going on with the Saints.

Other quotes are indefensible. On Kyle Williams, Gregg Williams clearly told his players to put a big hit on a player who previously had a concussion. On Crabtree, Williams told his players to take out the receiver’s knee.

Keep in mind, these quotes were made about a week after the Saints were told the NFL was re-opening its investigation into a bounty program that New Orleans had been told to stop. That's very significant, because it shows the Saints never stopped, even after multiple warnings. Also, these quotes are coming to light on a day when New Orleans coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and assistant head coach Joe Vitt are having their appeals heard by the NFL.

I think there’s a good chance the NFL already heard Williams’ speech. It probably came up in the NFL investigation of the bounty program. If it didn’t, it’s now public, and it certainly doesn’t reflect well on Williams or the Saints.

Williams already has been suspended indefinitely; the former defensive coordinator can have his status reviewed next year. I think the latest developments decrease the chances of Williams coaching in the NFL again.

I also think that the chances of Payton, Loomis and Vitt getting their suspensions reduced on appeal aren’t good.

Freeman doing some scouting for Bucs

February, 26, 2010
2/26/10
5:27
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Scott A. Miller/US PresswireQuarterback Josh Freeman is helping the Bucs prepare for the upcoming draft.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- There’s a new guy helping the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as they scout the prospects for this year’s NFL draft.

It’s quarterback Josh Freeman -- the same guy their drafted with their top pick. Yes, he’s part franchise quarterback and part scout and he’ll even tip his hand and tell you some of the guys he thinks the Bucs should take.

"I’ve been in watching film of different receivers with the offensive coordinator and the quarterback coach,’’ Freeman said Friday. “You might not have the Michael Crabtree or the Darius Heyward-Bey, but it’s a pretty talented receiver group coming out this year. There’s Dez Bryant and I’m a big fan out Jordan Shipley out of Texas.’’

Along with “The Fabulous Sports Babe’’ of ESPN Radio Tampa, I got to spend about 20 minutes chatting with Freeman on Friday afternoon as he attended “ESPN The Weekend’’ and the re-branding of ESPN’s Wide World of Sports. It was just a momentary break for Freeman, who soon will be back in Tampa, working out and scouting.

Yes, the Bucs really are asking Freeman for his opinions. That may sound a little bit out of the ordinary, but it’s actually a very smart move. Freeman, after all, is the franchise quarterback and the most positive thing the Bucs have going for them at this moment. It only makes sense to hear his thoughts.

You might be a little surprised to hear that Freeman’s first choice isn’t to get a wide receiver. Freeman said, if the draft were today and he was in the shoes of general manager Mark Dominik, he would take Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

“I would love to see Suh here,’’ Freeman said.

The Bucs would be wise to listen to Freeman’s thoughts on Suh because their quarterback knows the defensive tackle very well. They first became friends as teammates in a high-school all-star game, saw each other frequently as college foes and were hanging out together at the Super Bowl in Miami a few weeks ago.

“He basically lived in my backfield every time I played against Nebraska,’’ said Freeman, who played at Kansas State. “The drive that that guy has is unbelievable. He’s going to be a great teammate for whoever he goes to. The guy makes plays. He gets in the backfield and nobody can block him. They’re trying to figure out what’s going to help our team the most. If it’s a receiver, it’s a receiver. If it’s get Suh, it’s getting Suh. Anyway you look at it, I’m excited.’’

Freeman should be excited. After a 3-13 season in which Freeman took over as the starter near the halfway point, the Bucs have 10 picks in this year’s draft, including five in the top 99. If they can get Suh with the third overall pick, wide receiver could be a target area for one of their two second-round picks.

The Bucs already have made it clear they’ll let last year’s No. 1 wide receiver, Antonio Bryant, leave as a free agent.

“Antonio’s a great player,’’ Freeman said. “He makes a lot of plays. Obviously, the franchise -- the owners, GM and the coaches -- didn’t feel like he’d be able to help us next year. The time I got to spend with Antonio Bryant, I treasured it and he made a lot of great plays for me. I wish him luck with the rest of his career even though he’s not going to be in Tampa next season.’’

Freeman praised Bryant, but that formula didn’t always work in reverse. At one point last season, Bryant said his lack of production was due to playing with a rookie quarterback. That may be part of the reason why Bryant is on his way out of Tampa Bay.

You don’t criticize the franchise and Freeman is the franchise here. Freeman also praised Michael Clayton, Maurice Stovall and Sammie Stroughter, but he made no secret of the fact the Bucs are looking for a No. 1 receiver in the draft or free agency.

“Looking at our roster right now, we’ve got a lot of guys that can make plays,’’ Freeman said. “But we really don’t have that burner, the guy you can just send him on a Go (route), throw it up 70 yards and let him run under it.’’

The Bucs have that guy who can throw it up 70 yards in Freeman and they’re going to try to get him every toy possible because he is the franchise. At very least, Freeman’s going to have some say in who that guy is and, listening to him talk Friday, he’s more of a student of the game than I ever realized. Freeman talked extensively about college players at all positions and sounded a little like a draftnik.

That’s a good thing and talk about the draft wasn’t the only positive thing coming from Freeman. Although team offseason workouts don’t start for nearly another month, Tampa Bay fans will be happy to know that Freeman already has been working (not just scouting) for the last few weeks.

“You take a little break and after about two weeks, I was kind of like, “Man, I’m kind of tired of this. I’m ready to get back into the football mood,'’’ Freeman said. “I’ve started working out with our new quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt and our offensive coordinator (Greg Olson). I’ve been working. I can’t wait for the second season.’’

Freeman has seemed pretty poised ever since the Bucs drafted him. But I thought he seemed even more mature Friday. That may be because he already has seen so much. The Bucs fired offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski just before the season and the team struggled under first-year coach Raheem Morris for much of the season.

But there was some hope later in the season, after Freeman started playing. He had some good games and led a victory over Super Bowl champion New Orleans. Freeman said the game slowed down for him as the season went on and he’s looking forward to having an entire offseason working in Olson’s offense.

He also said he’s looking forward to Morris returning for his second season.

“It was kind of evident during the early part of the season, he was feeling his way around just like any rookie,’’ Freeman said. “They did the stuff with the coordinators and you could see later in the season we were playing better and better. You could tell he’s getting the grasp for it and he’s getting it fast. I’m excited to see him coach this year.’’

Funny, but that sounds a lot like the scouting report on the quarterback. Freeman went through a lot of the things rookie quarterbacks do. Late in the year, he did some really good things. You could tell he was grasping it and maybe he’s right about Morris grasping it.

Maybe the Bucs are just a few pieces from turning the corner. Maybe, with Freeman helping as a scout, the Bucs will figure out exactly what to put next to their franchise.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Who's going to be rookie of the year in the NFC South?

Well, we'll find out for sure next season, but I know a lot of us don't want to wait that long for an entire season to play out.

So why wait? The folks at WhatIfSports.com have played out the 2009 season already -- 10,000 times.

It's pretty interesting stuff, but the bad news is they don't see any NFC South rookie being dominant. The top-rated NFC South rookie is New Orleans cornerback Malcolm Jenkins and he comes in at No. 34 (San Francisco's Michael Crabtree is No. 1).

Other NFC South rookies in the top 100 include Carolina's Everette Brown (No. 38), Atlanta's Lawrence Sidbury (No. 42), Carolina's Sherrod Martin (No. 48), Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman (No. 72), Carolina's Duke Robinson (No. 76), Atlanta's Chris Owens (No. 85) and Atlanta safety William Moore (No. 100).

Thanks to reader Dale from Georgia for passing this along.

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