NFC South: Vernon Davis


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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METAIRIE, La. – It’s pretty obvious to the New Orleans Saints that tight end Vernon Davis is the weapon they have to be most concerned about in the San Francisco 49ers passing offense.

For one thing, Davis has caught seven of the 49ers’ nine touchdown passes this year. ESPN 49ers reporter Bill Williamson pointed out some remarkable numbers earlier this week about how much more effective San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been with Davis in the lineup than without. Davis missed a game in Week 3 and missed the second half of last week’s 10-9 loss to the Carolina Panthers with a concussion. But he’s expected to return this Sunday against the Saints.

“He’s a tight end, but he can run faster than most receivers,” said Saints linebacker Parys Haralson, who was traded this summer from the 49ers. “So he’s one of those guys that he’s a matchup nightmare."

More important than any statistics and scouting reports, however, is the Saints’ own personal experience. Davis destroyed them in a 2011 playoff performance that will live forever in the nightmares of the Who Dat Nation: seven catches, 180 yards and two touchdowns in a 36-32 victory for the 49ers.

“Obviously the biggest thing when you’re preparing to play him is his speed is elite,” said Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, who was burned by that speed a couple times in that playoff game, along with fellow safety Roman Harper. “The biggest thing is you can’t let him get the deep ball. Make him earn everything underneath.

“And that’s with any big-time receiver. You know, you’re not mad if they get a 5-yard hitch or a dig here and there.”

Davis is hardly unstoppable, though. Last year, the Saints held him without a catch in San Francisco’s 31-21 regular season victory in New Orleans. And his production has run a little hot and cold throughout his eight-year career.

But Davis has been having one of those “hot” seasons this year, with 30 catches for 520 yards and seven touchdowns. And he has been especially important to San Francisco’s offense with top receiver Michael Crabtree sidelined by an Achilles injury.
Colin Kaepernick and Cam NewtonGetty Images, AP PhotoQuarterbacks Colin Kaepernick, left, and Cam Newton highlight a matchup of NFC playoff contenders.
SAN FRANCISCO -- A few weeks ago, this didn’t appear to be a premier game.

But the Carolina Panthers kept on winning. Now, before the San Francisco 49ers have to tangle with potential playoff opponents New Orleans and Seattle in the coming weeks, looms another major NFC test in the form of the Panthers on Sunday at Candlestick Park.

This will be matchup featuring two of the hottest teams in the league. The 49ers have won five straight, the Panthers four straight. ESPN.com 49ers reporter Bill Williamson and Panthers reporter David Newton take a look at the intriguing matchup:

Newton: These teams appear similar, built around a strong running game, a versatile quarterback and strong defense. Where do you believe the 49ers have the biggest advantage?

Williamson: They totally believe in what they do. This is a confident team in all phases of the game. San Francisco is deep and focused, and it rarely misfires as a team. The 49ers stick to their plan and have confidence it will eventually wear opponents down. That is particularly true concerning the ground game on both sides of the ball. The 49ers know they are better than most opponents, and they just go out and try to prove it. I think they will try to stuff the Panthers early and get in their heads. David, the Panthers are certainly clicking themselves. Do you think they are up to this task?

Newton: Because their five wins came against teams with a combined 8-33 record, the critics are wary. So, the Panthers are relishing the opportunity to prove that their winning streak isn't a fluke, that they deserve to be mentioned as a serious contender. The only team they have faced with a record currently above .500 is Seattle, which beat Carolina 12-7 in the season opener. The Panthers believe they should have won that game, too. Like San Francisco, this group is very confident. The Panthers have an attitude and hunger that, with a decent amount of talent, make them dangerous. They won't be intimidated by San Francisco's résumé, particularly Carolina's defense, which is playing as well as any in the league. Just ask the Seahawks, who struggled to score 12 on Carolina, then scored 29 against the 49ers in Week 2. This is a playoff-caliber defense that should keep the Panthers in most games. Their biggest challenge will be stopping Colin Kaepernick. He appears to have picked up where he left off last season. How has he improved?

Williamson: He’s a perfect fit for this coaching staff. What coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman excel at is taking what opposing defenses give them. They will run inside or outside, will use Kaepernick on the ground or through the air and can exploit defenses using receiver Anquan Boldin or tight end Vernon Davis, depending on what is given to them. Kaepernick plays along perfectly. He is patient and doesn’t care about his own stats. He happily executes the game plan. David, do you think Panthers have a chance of frustrating Kaepernick by closing all those gaps?

Newton: That's the game plan, whether it's a running quarterback such as Kaepernick or a pocket passer. The goal is to stuff the run and make a team one-dimensional, and they've done that well enough to rank second in the league against the run. But running quarterbacks are a concern. Seattle's Russell Wilson didn't put up huge numbers in the opener, but he kept the chains moving and completed a high percentage of throws (76 percent, 25 of 33). Buffalo's EJ Manuel did the same thing. Carolina had a combined three sacks in those games. The Panthers have averaged more than three a game since. What will the 49ers do to counter the play of Cam Newton?

Williamson: The 49ers respect Newton. They have been talking about how physical Newton is and how they must respect his game. Again, the defense in San Francisco starts with stopping the run. Then, the 49ers tee off on the passing game. This has been a very stingy defense, but Newton is on a roll and will be the best quarterback this San Francisco defense has seen since Andrew Luck beat it at home in Week 3. David, do you see Newton succeeding in this game?

Newton: Most of Newton's success this season has come against defenses ranked in the lower half of the league. Most of it has come because he has gotten comfortable taking what the other team gives him, mostly short stuff, so he's been completing a high percentage of passes the past month. San Francisco has one of the best pass defenses in the league, so I look for Newton to use his legs more early to get into a rhythm, and I look for the Panthers to try to run to take the pressure off Newton. His confidence is at an all-time high, but the 49ers have a defense that can change that quickly.

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How the 49ers beat the Falcons

January, 21, 2013
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ATLANTA – With some help from ESPN Stats & Information, let’s take a look back at how the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Atlanta Falcons, 28-24, in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game:
  • Although the big fear coming into the game was that San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick would destroy the Falcons with his running off the read option, that didn’t happen. The 49ers used the option on 13 rushes, but Kaepernick did not keep the ball on any of those plays. However, the damage was done by the running backs. On those plays, San Francisco’s running backs averaged 5.2 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns.
  • The Falcons also did a good job of keeping Kaepernick in the pocket. He stayed there on 21 of 23 of his dropbacks. However, Kaepernick did plenty of damage from inside the pocket, averaging 11.5 yards per pass attempt. The only time he averaged more yards from inside the pocket was in his first start, in Week 11, when he averaged 13.5 yards per attempt.
  • Atlanta’s blitz didn’t do much good. Kaepernick was 9-of-11 for 129 yards and a touchdown when the Falcons sent five or more pass rushers. Kaepernick’s main target in those situations was tight end Vernon Davis, who caught four passes for 75 yards and a touchdown when the Falcons blitzed. Kaepernick also scrambled once for 23 yards on a blitz.
  • Speaking of Davis, he hadn’t been much of a factor since Kaepernick took over as the starter. Prior to Sunday, Davis had only one touchdown catch while Kaepernick was the starter and had averaged 1.6 catches and 23.5 yards per game. Against the Falcons, Davis had five catches for 106 yards.
  • Atlanta’s offense did a nice job of protecting quarterback Matt Ryan early in the game. But that changed dramatically later on. Ryan was under duress on six of his final 12 dropbacks.
  • The 49ers overcame a 17-0 deficit to win. That's the third largest road comeback in playoff history and the largest comeback in the history of the NFC Championship Game.
  • The 49ers were held to -2 yards in the first quarter. They gained 375 yards over the final three quarters.

In the end, the same old Falcons

January, 20, 2013
1/20/13
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Matt RyanAP Photo/David GoldmanMatt Ryan and the Falcons squandered an early lead and were held scoreless in the second half.
ATLANTA – There was Arthur Blank hugging Mike Smith and offering condolences. There was Smith hugging Thomas Dimitroff and not saying much of anything. There were grown men, namely Tony Gonzalez and Todd McClure, breaking into tears.

Even Roddy White, usually the most vocal member of the Atlanta Falcons, was on the verge of being speechless.

This is what happens when a team known for its inability to win the big games loses its biggest one yet.

This was the scene after the Falcons lost the NFC Championship Game to the San Francisco 49ers, 28-24, at the Georgia Dome on Sunday.

"We played well," Blank, the owner of the Falcons, said to a group of family members and friends as he waited to hear Smith, the coach, address the media. "Almost …"

Blank’s voice trailed off to silence, and the normally eloquent man became enveloped by a forlorn expression. After Smith talked to the media, he and Blank exchanged a hug, and then Smith did the same with Dimitroff, the general manager.

But the real tears came in the locker room. That’s where Gonzalez and McClure, the two elder statesmen of the team, lost it.

"You play your whole career …" said McClure, the center, who then broke into tears and went silent for about 20 seconds.

"You play your whole career," McClure eventually continued. "To get in this situation, and to come up short is tough."

On the other side of the locker room, Gonzalez, the veteran tight end, was saying basically the same thing and also shedding tears. Some of Gonzalez’s tears might have been because he said he is pretty sure he’s going to retire after a 16-year career. But there also is little doubt he was crying due to the way the Falcons lost the game.

As Gonzalez said he would probably retire, McClure said he wants to play another season. But, after what happened Sunday, I’m getting the feeling Gonzalez and McClure could play another 10 or 20 years and the Falcons still wouldn’t be capable of getting to the Super Bowl -- unless there are some dramatic changes.

The three previous playoff losses during the era of Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan were bad, but this one was horrible.

This one showed, just when it looked like the Falcons were going to turn the corner and show the world they really aren’t postseason chokers, that's precisely who they are.

I didn’t hear a single coach or player try to sugarcoat this one, and that’s fitting because there truly was no excuse for this.

The Falcons jumped out to a 17-0 lead, and employees at New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International Airport were probably already stocking up on eggs to greet the team upon its arrival for Super Bowl XLVII.

Instead, the Falcons promptly laid a huge egg. They let the 49ers creep back into the game before halftime. Then, they completely folded in the second half. There were two turnovers, two costly personal fouls and even Ryan, the supposed master of the comeback, couldn’t pull off a late miracle and put the Falcons in the end zone, even though they were just 10 yards away with a little more than a minute left.

"It’s tough when you are [10] yards away from the Super Bowl," White said in perhaps his only useable quote of the day.

There were plenty of unusable quotes in a locker room in which profanities, spawned by frustration, were abundant.

The Falcons should be furious about this one. It was their best chance yet to get to the franchise's first Super Bowl since the 1998 season.

Instead, they squandered a 13-3 season and the benefit of a No. 1 seed for the second time in three seasons.

For all the good the Falcons did this season (and they did at least get a playoff win against Seattle last week), they’re right back where they were at the start of the season. And the start of the season before that.

Go ahead and fire away with the same old questions and criticisms.

Smith is too nice to win the big ones. Ryan can win in the regular season, but not when it matters most.

It’s all valid. In fact, now the Falcons have firmly earned the right to be questioned and criticized from now until the day they win a Super Bowl -- if they ever do.

Put the blame on the coaches, and put the blame on Ryan. The Falcons scored 24 points in the first half and precisely zero in the second half. Ryan fumbled away a snap out of the shotgun formation and threw an interception. A team that prides itself on not making mistakes made plenty of them. There were the two personal fouls and repeated breakdowns on defense.

Let’s not forget what might have been the biggest issue of all.

"Covering the tight end," Smith said. "The tight end was an issue."

The tight end (Vernon Davis, who finished with five catches for 106 yards) was a huge issue, mainly because the Falcons inexplicably didn’t bother to cover him.

But let's forget the individual breakdowns for now. It’s time to start wondering if there’s a more systemic issue with the Falcons. Is there some inherent flaw with this personnel, with this coaching staff and with the way the Falcons do things?

They had everything: a ton of talent, an incredibly loud home crowd and a big early lead.

Yet the Falcons have squandered yet another postseason opportunity. After all the talk about how -- this time -- this team was really, truly different, it turns out the Falcons are nothing but the same old Falcons.

 
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.

Around the NFC South

January, 27, 2012
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Time for a look at some Friday headlines from around the NFC South.

D. Orlando Ledbetter writes that there has been a lot of focus on the tight ends during Super Bowl practices. That may have a lot to do with the success of tight ends like San Francisco’s Vernon Davis and New England’s Rob Gronkowski and the play of almost all the NFC South tight ends during the regular season. It’s possible we could see some NFC South teams draft tight ends this year because the position has become more important than ever. The Saints could look for depth behind Jimmy Graham. Same for the Panthers, who could one someone to team with Greg Olsen if Jeremy Shockey isn’t re-signed. Although Tony Gonzalez hasn’t showed many signs that he’s slowing down, the Falcons may want to find an heir apparent. Tampa Bay’s Kellen Winslow has a history of knee problems and the Buccaneers could look for insurance.

Although he’s about to play in his first Pro Bowl, Graham said the wounds from the playoff loss to San Francisco remain very fresh.

Rick Stroud throws out a couple of names as possible assistants for new Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano. The Bucs have reportedly requested permission to interview Arizona receivers coach John McNulty, who spent some time as offensive coordinator and receivers coach at Rutgers under Schiano. McNulty also had a stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars and is the most famous person ever to come out of Abington Heights High School in Clarks Summit, Pa. Former NFL and college head coach Butch Davis also is mentioned as a possible candidate to be an assistant.

There’s a report that Brad Childress could be headed to Cleveland as the offensive coordinator. Childress interviewed for the head coaching job in Tampa Bay. There were also some rumblings that Childress could have ended up as the Bucs’ offensive coordinator if Mike Sherman got the job. Although it sounds like Childress probably will join the Browns, I still wouldn’t rule out completely the possibility of the Bucs making a late run at Childress as their coordinator. Schiano probably wants someone with NFL experience as offensive coordinator because his own background is on defense.

Although he has no problem with the hiring of Schiano, who once worked as defensive coordinator at the University of Miami, Winslow said he would have preferred Carolina’s Rob Chudzinski, who was a finalist for the job. That’s because Chudzinski was Winslow’s tight ends coach at the University of Miami. Chudzinski will apparently remain as Carolina’s offensive coordinator. But, if the Carolina offense has another big season, Chudzinski’s going to be a hot candidate for a job as a head coach next year.

Saints' loss by the numbers

January, 15, 2012
1/15/12
12:46
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New Orleans fans, I know this may be painful. But you might want to reflect on Saturday’s 36-32 playoff loss to San Francisco to learn some lessons that may help you in the future.

Let’s turn to ESPN Stats & Information for some numbers that help explain what went wrong in New Orleans’ loss.
  • Drew Brees threw for 462 yards and four touchdowns, but San Francisco’s Alex Smith had the better day. That’s my opinion, but it’s also backed up by the Total QBR for both players. Smith finished with a 78.1 Total QBR, while Brees was at 62.0, which is only slightly above an “average’’ score (50). Brees’ score was dragged down by the fact he threw two interceptions and was sacked three times. It also didn’t help that he completed just three of nine passes that traveled 15 or more yards in the air. Smith’s Total QBR was pulled up dramatically by a 99.7 score in the fourth quarter as he led two touchdown drives.
  • The Saints now have lost all five of their road playoff games in franchise history. That ties them with the Bengals for most road losses without a win in postseason history. The Super Bowl victory in Miami doesn’t count because that was a neutral site.
  • Darren Sproles finished with a postseason-record 15 receptions. The previous record was 13 and had been done four times. Sproles (119 yards), Marques Colston (136) and Jimmy Graham (103) each had over 100 receiving yards.
  • San Francisco’s game-winning touchdown pass from Smith to Vernon Davis came with nine seconds left. Only three game-winning touchdowns in postseason history came with less time remaining.
  • The Saints couldn’t cover Davis, who finished with seven catches for 180 yards. That was especially true when the 49ers sent Davis downfield. On throws of 11 yards or more, Smith connected with Davis on all five attempts for 167 yards and two touchdowns. In the past four seasons, Davis never had five catches of 11 yards or more in a single game and only had one multi-touchdown game.
  • The New Orleans defense was exceptionally vulnerable when Smith was passing between the numbers on the field. He averaged a touchdown every 7.3 attempts, after averaging a touchdown every 24.6 attempts during the regular season. Smith had three touchdowns on throws inside the numbers and averaged 9.4 yards per attempt.
  • As expected, the Saints blitzed Smith a lot. In the first three quarters, the Saints sent four or fewer rushers on only nine of Smith’s 33 dropbacks (27.3) percent. But, in the fourth quarter, the Saints cut back on the blitz and sent four or fewer rushers on 50 percent of Smith’s dropbacks and he burned them. In the fourth quarter, Smith completed all six of his passes, including the game winner, when he was not blitzed.
  • The 49ers stunned the Saints when Smith ran for a touchdown on third and seven with 2:11 remaining. During the regular season, quarterbacks attempted a designed running play on third and seven or more only 2.4 percent of the time and only one of those 81 carries resulted in a quarterback scoring a touchdown (Miami’s Chad Henne against New England in Week 1).

Saints put too much on Drew Brees

January, 14, 2012
1/14/12
10:55
PM ET
Drew BreesThearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesDrew Brees attempted 63 passes Saturday, 14 more than in any regular-season game this season.
Drew Brees is capable of many great things. But you can’t go to the miracle well 63 times in a game and expect it to produce every time.

That was proved Saturday as Brees and the New Orleans Saints lost 36-32 in a divisional playoff game to the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park.

History will tell us this was one of the best games in playoff annals, coming as it did with four lead changes in the final 5 minutes and San Francisco’s winning touchdown with 9 seconds remaining. History will be right, because this game was exciting all the way around.

But the surrounding hysteria might get in the way of history, so let’s go ahead and go on the record with one very important item that cannot be overlooked: You can’t go deep into the postseason with Brees and Brees alone.

That’s what the Saints tried to do, and it came painfully close to working. They had Brees attempt 63 passes. He completed 40 of them, and it looked like he had the miracle the Saints needed when he hit tight end Jimmy Graham with a 66-yard touchdown pass with 1:37 left.

But football -- particularly when it’s in the postseason and on the road -- is about much more than a quarterback, even if he’s surrounded with Graham, Darren Sproles and Marques Colston.

You must have defense, special teams and a running game. The Saints had none of those things against the 49ers, and that’s why they lost.

They simply asked too much from Brees, and they should have known better.

Just go back and look at New Orleans’ three losses during the regular season. There’s a little lesson here.

In the opener at Lambeau Field, Brees attempted 49 passes -- a number that would end up as his regular-season high. He lost a shootout to Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay, and there’s no shame in that. But look closely at the Saints' other two losses, because they came against inferior opponents. In an Oct. 16 defeat to Tampa Bay, the last game the Buccaneers won, Brees attempted 45 passes.

Oh, and then there’s that inexplicable loss to St. Louis two weeks later. Brees attempted 44 passes in that game. Win either the St. Louis or Tampa Bay game, and the Saints are the No. 2 seed and playing at home, where they were undefeated in the regular season.

There’s a line of demarcation where too much Brees becomes a bad thing. It’s somewhere in the low 40s. Yeah, Brees threw 44 times in victories against Houston and Jacksonville, 45 times in a three-point win over Carolina and 47 in a December victory against Tennessee. But none of those was pretty, and Houston was the only playoff team among that bunch.

In games in which Brees attempted 43 or fewer passes, the Saints were 8-0. They also were at their best in those games. They had a running game, some defense and no huge mistakes by the special teams.

But the Saints apparently didn’t notice that trend. They put too much on Brees on Saturday, and they did have some valid reasons for that. Brees didn’t help matters with two interceptions, and the Saints turned the ball over three times in the first quarter.

They fell behind 17-0. Then, they let Brees bring them back but didn’t do anything to help him. The running game, which had been so much better than last season’s, was nonexistent. Sproles, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas combined for only 13 rushing attempts and 32 yards.

Thomas left the game with an apparent concussion after losing a fumble near the goal line in the first quarter. Without him, the New Orleans offense became predictable. When Ivory was in the game, it was obvious the Saints were running. When Sproles was in there, it was obvious they were throwing.

And they threw way too often against a defense that can generate pressure. On his 63 drop-backs, Brees was sacked three times. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brees was under duress an additional 17 times. When under duress, Brees completed five of 16 attempts (31.3 percent). Brees also threw away five passes after throwing away only eight during the regular season and in the first round of the playoffs.

Again, there should have been a lesson from the regular season. The most times Brees was sacked or under duress (17) was in the St. Louis loss. Against Green Bay, Brees was sacked or under duress on 12 of his drop-backs.

The more often you have Brees drop back, the more you’re asking for trouble, especially when you have two All-Pros at guard but very ordinary tackles.

However, the biggest letdown of all came from the defense. It happened twice after Brees brought the Saints all the way back to take the lead.

The New Orleans defense was pretty good in the 2009 championship season, but it’s fallen off dramatically since then. After doing a decent job against the 49ers most of the game, it totally collapsed in the final four minutes.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Cary Edmondson/US PresswireWith no running game to help out, Drew Brees faced heavy pressure from the 49ers defense.
The Saints allowed Alex Smith to score on a 28-yard run, the longest of his career. No one should ever confuse the slow-footed Smith with Steve Young. But now, in addition to Young, he’s going to get compared to Joe Montana.

After the late touchdown to Graham, Smith took the 49ers on a drive for the ages. He hit tight end Vernon Davis with a 14-yard touchdown pass to win the game with 9 seconds left. Matched up against strong safety Roman Harper most of the game, Davis finished with seven catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns.

The Saints should have known going into the game that Harper on Davis was a huge mismatch, but they kept letting it happen and they kept making Smith look great when it mattered most.

This game showed what’s been suspected since after the Saints won their Super Bowl. Their defense isn’t that good anymore.

That’s obvious now, and there are bound to be ripples, maybe even big waves, after this loss. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ contract just expired, and there already has been speculation he could be joining his old buddy Jeff Fisher in St. Louis. Coach Sean Payton, who once gave up part of his own salary to get Williams, might not stand in the way of a move after this one.

It’s going to be a busy offseason for the Saints. They must sign Brees to a new contract because his deal is up. The Saints have other expensive potential free agents such as Colston and guard Carl Nicks.

There’s no doubt the Saints will keep Brees and, in the process, probably make him the league’s highest-paid quarterback. But as they look at their salary-cap situation after taking care of Brees, they should take a long, hard look at their roster.

It’s time for some changes. You can do all sorts of flashy things and break lots of records by letting Brees carry your team. But he can win a championship only when he has some help around him.

It’s time to give Brees that help.

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 36, Saints 32

January, 14, 2012
1/14/12
8:25
PM ET

Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints’ 36-32 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday at Candlestick Park.

What it means: You can’t defy conventional wisdom. In a game that will go down as a postseason classic, the Saints broke almost every rule and tradition. But they still lost in the end, as tight end Vernon Davis scored a touchdown with 9 seconds remaining. That capped a game that had four lead changes in the final 3 minutes, 53 seconds. The Saints came painfully close to proving they could win on the road, outdoors and in the postseason. They almost showed you can turn the ball over five times and still win. They also came close to proving wrong the old adage that defense wins championships. But there were no miracles this time.

What I liked: The game was as exciting as any you’ll ever see. It had drama and surprises from start to finish. San Francisco jumped out to a 17-0 lead at home, but Drew Brees rallied his team and put the Saints right back in the game. New Orleans’ defense played surprisingly well most of the day, right up until the end.

What I didn’t like: New Orleans’ defense folded when it mattered most. Alex Smith, who has never been confused with Tim Tebow, broke loose on a fourth-quarter touchdown run. Then, after Brees put the Saints ahead with a touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham, the defense collapsed again. Smith, who had been considered a bust for most of his career, brought back memories of Steve Young and Joe Montana with his game-winning drive. Davis abused strong safety Roman Harper most of the day, and he did it again when it mattered most.

What’s next: An offseason that’s starting sooner than expected for the Saints. There are some key personnel matters to deal with. Brees is no longer under contract. He undoubtedly will return to the Saints, but he’s going to take up a lot of salary-cap room. With Marques Colston, Carl Nicks and several other key players scheduled to become free agents, the Saints will have to make some big decisions. They also could have change on the coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ contract is expiring, and there is speculation he could be joining his old friend Jeff Fisher in St. Louis.

Soon to be stars: Jimmy Graham

June, 2, 2011
6/02/11
12:00
PM ET
Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson looks at NFC South players on the verge of a breakout in 2011.

Jimmy Graham entered the NFL last season with just one year of college football experience -- he played basketball during his undergrad years at Miami and took up football during his first year of graduate work -- but he far exceeded expectations as a rookie.

His quick assimilation has me jumping out of my chair to see what he will do in his second year, and this time next year we could very well be lumping him in with Antonio Gates, Vernon Davis and Jermichael Finley as the top pass-catching tight ends in the league.

Graham’s size is the first thing you notice about him. He has a basketball build (extreme height, long arms) and will continue to fill out as he mature, but Graham’s movement skills are those of a much smaller, more compact man.

He seems to glide across the field and rarely looks uncoordinated despite his lack of football experience, and his routes are natural and will only get better with time. Even his run and pass blocking are serviceable, and they, too, will continue to improve.

Graham can run past linebackers out of the slot and stretch the field in the passing game, and it won’t be long before he is one of the elite red zone targets in the NFL. He wasn’t much of a factor early in 2010 but got more playing time later in the season, scoring four touchdowns in the final three games of the regular season.

The New Orleans offense is perfect for Graham’s skill set. Having Drew Brees distributing the ball helps any receiving target, but coach Sean Payton also uses a diverse attack with varied personnel groupings that can move a player like Graham around the formation to get favorable matchups based on his combination of size and speed, and the attention he commands can also open up room for his teammates.

Given the Saints’ offseason commitment to solidifying their running game Graham should see looser coverages this season, and based on how easy he made things look in his rookie year I can’t wait to see what he does in 2011.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.

One ton of Tony Gonzalez

January, 13, 2011
1/13/11
11:40
AM ET
video
If you’re wondering how Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez has held up so well through 14 NFL seasons and is still going strong at age 34, take a look at this Sports Science video.

It’s pretty fascinating to watch Gonzalez go through the drills, and it’s even more fascinating to hear what his numbers mean. He’s got just as much blocking power as San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis, who is younger and heavier, his hand-eye coordination is good enough that Gonzalez, theoretically, could hit a pitch faster than anything ever thrown in Major League Baseball and the poor dummy at the end of the video gets hit with the equivalent of one ton.
Unless somebody has a really bad -- and I’m talking absolutely horrible -- game this weekend, Tampa Bay offensive tackle Jeremy Trueblood is going to run away with the unflattering distinction of being the league leader in false-start penalties.

Trueblood already has 10. No one else is even close. Levi Brown, Ryan Diem and Vernon Davis are tied for second place with seven false-start penalties. Carolina’s Jeff Otah had six before he was placed on injured reserve. Carolina tight end Jeff King and Tampa Bay tackle Donald Penn have been called for four false starts. No one else in the NFC South has been called with more than three false starts.

Trueblood has uncomfortable lead

December, 22, 2009
12/22/09
5:11
PM ET
With two games remaining, Tampa Bay offensive tackle Jeremy Trueblood has a chance to run away with the infamous title as the league’s leader in false-start penalties.

Trueblood has been called for a league-high nine false starts, according to ESPN Stats & Information. His nearest competitors are Levi Brown, Vernon Davis and Ryan Diem, who each have been charged with seven false starts. Trueblood was charged with six false starts in each of his first three NFL seasons and has 39 overall penalties in his career.

Carolina’s Jeff Otah is tied with a bunch of guys with six false starts. But Otah is out with an injury for the rest of the season. Carolina tight end Jeff King, who has been called for four false starts, is the only other NFC South player on the list of 38 players who have been charged with at least four false starts.

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