NFL Nation: NFC Championship Game

Kaepernick's comments show poise

January, 30, 2014

In a rare move, Colin Kaepernick made news with his words Thursday.

The usually reserved San Francisco 49ers quarterback made headlines by taking on Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman. Kaepernick said Sherman's comments about the 49ers after the NFC title game were "ridiculous" and that he looks forward to facing Sherman next season.

[+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesColin Kaepernick pulled back the curtain on himself a bit Thursday and added fuel to the 49ers-Seahawks fire.
Good for Kaepernick. He's right. Sherman's actions were ridiculous.

Kaepernick needed to comment. He's the face of the 49ers. Sherman attacked his receiver Michael Crabtree and attacked Kaepernick by giving him the "choke" sign after the game-sealing interception. Kaepernick should stick up for himself; he also stoked this rivalry. Is there any doubt it's now the best in the NFL?

The rivalry was already through the roof. But after the incredible title game, the injuries the 49ers suffered in the game, Sherman's comments and Kaepernick rebuttal, this thing is a five-alarm fire. Expect these two teams to play early next season in prime time. I could even see this being the season-opening game if the Seahawks win the Super Bowl.

Kaepernick also handled talk about his new contract well. He is eligible for a new deal and has one year remaining on his rookie contract. Kaepernick told San Francisco radio station KNBR on Thursday: "I think it's a balance. You want to be paid fairly for what you feel like you're doing in comparison to your peers. But at the same time, you have to realize, if we want to get Anquan Boldin back, if we want Donte Whitner to come back, we're going to have to make moves to get them back. And there has to be room for everyone. And that's something I'm going to let my agent and the organization try to figure out. But hopefully, it's a position where we can assemble the best team we need."

Kaepernick is weighing his needs and the team's -- an important distinction for a leader. Kaepernick doesn't always allow a deep look in interviews, but Thursday he did. It was a good look.

Every 49ers player practices

January, 16, 2014
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- All 53 San Francisco 49ers practiced Thursday as they close in on preparations for Sunday's NFC Championship game at Seattle.

Pro Bowl linebacker Ahmad Brooks appears to be on track to play Sunday. He missed Wednesday's practice with what he said was a "severe head cold." However, he practiced fully Thursday. Barring a setback, Brooks should be fine.

Cornerback Carlos Rogers (hamstring) and fullback Will Tukuafu (knee) remained on track to play as they were limited for a second straight day. Barring setbacks, they too should be ready to play Sunday.

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio wouldn't say how much Rogers, who hasn't played since Week 17, would play. Perish Cox has done a nice job since taking over for him.

"We’re hoping that he can get 100 percent healthy," Fangio said of Rogers. "And then we'll see exactly what his role will be at that point."

In the end, the same old Falcons

January, 20, 2013
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.


Thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons' 28-24 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome:

What it means: For the second time in three seasons, the Falcons went 13-3 and earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC but couldn’t parlay home-field advantage into a trip to the Super Bowl. At least the Falcons won a playoff game (they defeated Seattle in the divisional round) for the first time in the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan era. But this team had visions of much more than one playoff win, so the ending is disappointing. Smith is not on any hot seat because of his huge regular-season success, but he and the Falcons will enter the 2013 season under enormous pressure to win it all. This team is loaded with talent, and fans and owner Arthur Blank are running out of patience.

Opportunity lost: This one is going to be particularly painful for the Falcons. They jumped out to a 17-0 lead and looked like they were going to blow the 49ers out of the Georgia Dome. But just like last week against Seattle, the Falcons let the 49ers get back in the game. The Falcons had a chance to win it in the end. But there were no miracles from Ryan this time, as he had a fourth-down pass batted down deep in San Francisco territory with less than two minutes remaining.

Opportunity lost II: Atlanta receiver Julio Jones played the game of his life. He caught eight passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns. But the loss put a big damper on all that.

What’s next: The Falcons will head into an offseason that will involve some key personnel decisions. Cornerback Brent Grimes, left tackle Sam Baker and William Moore highlight the class of potential free agents. Tight end Tony Gonzalez has hinted strongly at retirement, and aging running back Michael Turner could become a salary-cap casualty. This team still has a good nucleus in place, but the loss showed that flaws remain. Smith and Thomas Dimitroff will have to spend the offseason tweaking the roster to try to get the Falcons ready to take the next step.

Halftime: Falcons 24, 49ers 14

January, 20, 2013
ATLANTA -- Sunday’s NFC Championship Game is shaping up a lot like last week’s divisional round game between the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks.

At halftime, the Falcons hold a 24-14 lead.

That may seem like good news for Atlanta fans. But here’s the catch -- the Falcons were leading this game 17-0 and looked like they were ready to blow the 49ers right out of the Georgia Dome.

But it’s become eerily reminiscent of last week when the Falcons led 20-0, squandered it and had to kick a last-second field goal to get past Seattle. But the good news for the Falcons is that they took the momentum back with a touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Tony Gonzalez near the end of the first half.

We’ll see what the second half brings. I’ll be back with a Rapid Reaction as soon as the game ends. Also, if you’re not already with us, please join us in the Countdown Live chat in the second half.

Live from the Georgia Dome

January, 20, 2013
ATLANTA -- I’m in the Georgia Dome, where things are quiet for the moment.

The gates aren’t open to fans yet and the only players I see on the field loosening up are Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant and punter Matt Bosher.

But the atmosphere is going to change soon enough because the parking lots already were jammed with tailgate parties and I did notice a few fans wearing San Francisco jerseys.

I’ll be back with inactives about 90 minutes before kickoff. Colleagues John Clayton and Mike Sando are here with me and Ashley Fox also should be arriving soon. Also, I'm scheduled to chat about the matchup between the Falcons and 49ers on ESPN Radio at approximately 12:30 p.m. ET.

Be sure to join us in the Countdown Live chat throughout the game.

Championship Sunday is upon us

January, 20, 2013
ATLANTA -- At long last, the day of the NFC Championship Game is finally here.

It’s a gorgeous day in Atlanta with the sun shining, not a cloud in the sky and afternoon temperatures expected to be in the upper 50s. That might seem insignificant because the game between the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers will be played indoors in the Georgia Dome. But it could be a factor because it means the tailgating conditions are perfect and that could only make the crowd noise in the dome louder.

I’m passing the next few hours at my hotel, but colleagues John Clayton and Mike Sando will be heading over to the Georgia Dome in a few hours. We should be in there about noon and we’ll bring you all the pregame news and notes.

We’ll also be chatting live throughout the game on Countdown Live, so join us if you can.

Buckle up because it should be a fun day.

Atlanta Falcons injury report

January, 18, 2013
The Atlanta Falcons are listing defensive end John Abraham (ankle) and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (shoulder) as questionable for Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against San Francisco.

But both took part in Friday’s practice on a limited basis, so I think it’s safe to assume Babineaux and Abraham will be playing Sunday.

The Falcons also are listing safety William Moore (hand), linebacker Stephen Nicholas (foot) and cornerback Christopher Owens (hamstring) as probable. All three participated fully in Friday’s practice.

Final Word: 49ers at Falcons

January, 18, 2013
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 highest 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 last 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, both 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.

Falcons can't afford to be 'lazy'

January, 18, 2013
The Atlanta Falcons’ locker room is filled with guys that constantly spew whatever happens to be the company line at the moment.

But the notable exception is wide receiver Roddy White. He never has been afraid to say what really is on his mind. Sometimes it gets him in trouble. But, sometimes, it’s a very good thing.

White’s comments about what happened in the 30-28 playoff victory over Seattle fall into the latter category.

“I felt like in the first half we did a heck of a job, just coming out with attitude and executing at a high level," White said. "We got a little lazy in the second half. We kind of got too complacent, too relaxed. You can't do that in the playoffs. Every series matters. You can't have lulls, man."

White probably is the only member of the Falcons that will say publicly that the team got complacent and lazy after jumping out to a 20-0 lead against the Seahawks. You have to give Seattle some credit for not giving up and playing a great second half, and I’m not sure the Falcons got lazy. But they did come very close to what would have been a disastrous loss.

But the bottom line is that White is exactly right. The San Francisco 49ers are an even better team than Seattle. In the NFC Championship Game, the Falcons have to keep their foot on the accelerator for the entire 60 minutes.

Checking on Falcons' injuries

January, 17, 2013
The Atlanta Falcons appear to be about as healthy as possible as they get ready for Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Defensive end John Abraham practiced on a limited basis for the second straight day. Abraham aggravated an ankle injury in the win against Seattle in the divisional playoffs. The Falcons continue to express optimism that he’ll be able to play Sunday and I doubt you’ll see Abraham sit this one out. The Falcons need their top pass-rusher and backups Cliff Matthews and Jonathan Massaquoi aren’t nearly on Abraham’s level.

Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (shoulder) and cornerback Christopher Owens (hamstring) also participated in practice on a limited basis.

Safety William Moore (hand) and linebacker Stephen Nicholas (foot) are listed on the injury report but both of them participated fully in practice for the second straight day.

Experts: Falcons have no chance

January, 17, 2013
It appears as if the consensus is that the Atlanta Falcons have very little chance to defeat the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.

At least that’s what Las Vegas odds-makers and lots of media members are saying. The ESPN NFL Expert Picks are out, and Chris Mortensen and Keyshawn Johnson are the only two of the 14 panelists to pick the Falcons.

I generally stay clear of predictions, but I make exceptions for the postseason. In case you missed the Double Coverage segment I did with NFC West Colleague Mike Sando on Tuesday, I made my prediction there.

I picked the Falcons to win, 31-27. I think the home-field advantage means more than a lot of people realize, and I think Matt Ryan will shine in this game.

So, at least there are two other people out there picking the Falcons.

No magic to 'Matty Ice'?

January, 16, 2013
Since almost the day he first stepped onto an NFL field, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has been thrilling fans with his late-game heroics.

Put Ryan in a press-conference setting and chances are good he’s not going to thrill. He’s always polite, but he can be reserved and cautious, especially when talking about himself.

That’s how it played out Wednesday as Ryan addressed the media during the NFC Championship Game press conference at the team’s facility in Flowery Branch, Ga. With a national audience watching, Ryan was asked about the history of his “Matty Ice" nickname.

For those who expect some grand story, you’re going to be disappointed.

Ryan just laughed and said the nickname started when he was a freshman in high school at William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia.

Was there some big comeback that earned him the nickname?

“No particular reason,’’ Ryan said. “Just out of the blue. I guess it sounded cool. It just stuck.’’

Whatever, Ryan’s play since joining the Falcons has been very cool. Ryan has led 23 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, including Sunday’s victory against Seattle.

Ryan also has been particularly good in the final two minutes of the first or second half this season. Including the playoff win against Seattle, Ryan has completed 70.1 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and no interceptions in the final two minutes of either half, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

So where does Ryan’s poise come from?

No big story there either, at least according to Ryan.

“As a guy that’s been around five years, you learn it’s difficult week in and week out in the NFL,’’ Ryan said. “You need to keep playing.’’

Media day for NFC Championship Game

January, 16, 2013
It’s not as big or as centralized as the Super Bowl’s media day, but Wednesday will serve the same purpose for the NFC Championship Game.

Once upon a time, things were structured so that news conferences were held the Friday before championship games in the host city. The head coach and selected players from visiting teams would have to fly in early to take part. But technology has changed that and moved the schedule up.

The Falcons and the 49ers each will hold news conferences at their own facilities Wednesday. Atlanta coach Mike Smith, quarterback Matt Ryan, center Todd McClure and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon will meet with the media at 4 p.m. ET and the interviews will be carried live on NFL Network.

Nice choice by the Falcons to put McClure out there. He doesn’t get a lot of attention due to the nature of his position. But he’s the longest-tenured member of the Falcons and he’s a very good quote.

The 49ers will start their news conference at 2:55 p.m. ET and it will feature coach Jim Harbaugh, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, linebacker Patrick Willis and defensive lineman Justin Smith.

I’ll be monitoring both news conferences and will bring you the highlights.

Positive stat for the Falcons

January, 16, 2013
As the media waited to hear from coach Mike Smith after Atlanta’s victory against Seattle this past Sunday, a television played in the news conference room next to the Falcons’ locker room in the Georgia Dome.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank was waiting with the media. He didn’t seem to react when one television announcer went ahead and declared the San Francisco 49ers a prohibitive favorite over the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game and another broadcaster instantly agreed. Maybe that’s because Blank, like so many Atlanta fans, is used to his team getting sold short.

But let’s interrupt all the talk about how wonderful the 49ers are with this PSA (Positive Stat Atlanta): It’s been more than a little while since the 49ers have won a playoff game on the road.

We’re not counting Super Bowls in neutral stadiums. To find the last time the 49ers won a playoff game on the road, you have to go back to the 1988 season.

On Jan. 8, 1989, the 49ers defeated the Chicago Bears, 28-3, at Soldier Field. Bill Walsh was coaching the 49ers at that time.

Oh, one more PSA: The last time the 49ers played a postseason game in the Georgia Dome was at the end of the 1998 season. The Falcons won that game, 20-18, and eventually went on to the Super Bowl.