From Comcast SportsNetATLANTA (AP) -- The clutch quarterback. The genius coach. The big-play defense.The San Francisco 49ers are ready to start a new dynasty with a familiar formula.Next stop, the Big Easy.Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore led San Francisco to a record comeback in the NFC championship game Sunday, overcoming an early 17-0 deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons 28-24 and send the 49ers to their first Super Bowl since 1995.Gore scored a pair of touchdowns, including the winner with 8:23 remaining for San Francisco's first lead of the day, and the 49ers defense made it stand up. A fourth-down stop at the 10-yard line denied Atlanta another stirring comeback after blowing a big lead."Everybody does a little," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said, "and it adds up to be a lot."San Francisco (13-4-1) moves on to face Baltimore at New Orleans in two weeks, looking to join Pittsburgh as the only franchises with six Super Bowl titles. It'll be a brother-vs.-brother matchup, too, since John Harbaugh coaches the Ravens.Joe Montana led the 49ers to four Super Bowl wins and Steve Young took them to No. 5. It's up to Kaepernick and Co. to get No. 6."He just competes like a maniac all the time," said Harbaugh, whose much-debated decision to bench Alex Smith at midseason now looks like the best move of the year.Harbaugh was hoppin' mad when a disputed call went against the 49ers on Atlanta's potential winning drive. He leaped in the air, screamed at the officials and had to be restrained by his staff from charging the field.No complaints when it was over."We rose up there at the end," Harbaugh said.His second-year quarterback, who runs like a track star, didn't get a chance to show off his touchdown celebration -- flexing his right arm and kissing his bicep, a move that quickly became a social media sensation known as Kaepernicking.But he shredded the Falcons through the air by completing 16 of 21 for 233 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown to Vernon Davis, and had them so worried about his running ability out of the spread option that Gore and LaMichael James had plenty of room.Gore scored a pair of touchdowns, including the game winner with 8:23 remaining for San Francisco's first lead of the day. Davis scored the first TD for the 49ers on a 15-yard run."I take my hat off to Atlanta. They played hard. They've got a great team," Gore said. "But we fought, man. We fought and we deserved it."The 49ers pulled off the biggest comeback victory in an NFC championship game, according to STATS. The previous NFC record was 13 points -- Atlanta's victory over Minnesota in the 1999 title game, which sent the Falcons to what remains the only Super Bowl in franchise history.The AFC championship game record is 18 points, when Indianapolis rallied past New England in 2007.Harbaugh is hardly cool and collected like the 49ers' first Super Bowl-winning coach, Bill Walsh, but has pulled off a similar turnaround in San Francisco. The 49ers had eight straight years without a winning record before their new coach arrived from Stanford in 2011.He immediately led San Francisco to the cusp of the Super Bowl, losing to the eventual champion New York Giants in overtime in last year's NFC title game, a bitter defeat at home set up by a fumbled return.This time, the 49ers were the ones winning on the road to set up another celebration in the city by the bay, which is rapidly becoming the new Titletown USA. They'll try to follow the lead of the baseball Giants, who won the World Series in October."We've come full circle," said Denise DeBartolo York, part of the family that has owned the 49ers since their championship days, "and the dynasty will prevail."Kaepernick guided San Francisco on a pair of second-half scoring drives that wiped out Atlanta's 24-14 lead at the break. Gore scored on a 5-yard run early in the third quarter, then sprinted in from 9 yards out for the winning score with 8:23 remaining after each team made crucial mistakes to ruin potential scoring drives.On both of Gore's TDs, the Falcons had to worry about Kaepernick running it in himself. They barely even touched the running back on either play, and James scored pretty much the same way."I kind of figured that coming in and they showed that on film, so I assumed Frank and LaMichael were going to have a big day," Kaepernick said. "Frank ran hard today, and I can't say enough about him."The top-seeded Falcons (14-4), in what appeared to be the final game for Hall of Famer-to-be Tony Gonzalez, tried to pull off another season-extending drive. But, unlike the week before against Seattle, they needed a touchdown this time.They came up 10 yards short.On fourth down, Matt Ryan attempted a pass over the middle to Roddy White that would have been enough to keep the drive going. But linebacker NaVorro Bowman stuck a hand in to knock it away with 1:13 remaining.The 49ers ran off all but the final 6 seconds, not nearly enough time for Ryan to pull off his greatest comeback yet.In the divisional playoffs, the Falcons blew a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter, the Seahawks scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 31 seconds remaining. But Ryan completed two long passes, setting up Matt Bryant's 49-yard field goal for 30-28 victory.The Falcons came up short of their second Super Bowl, leaving the 1995 Braves as the city's only major sports champions. This one figures to hurt for a while."We didn't make the plays when we had the opportunity," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "There were five or six plays, like in most hard-fought games, that make a difference. There were ebbs and flows and changes in momentum, and they made more plays than we did."Kaepernick, who ran for 181 yards against the Packers the week before to set an NFL playoff record for a quarterback, didn't have much chance to use his legs against the Falcons. He broke off a 23-yard gain, but was thrown for a 2-yard loss the only other time he carried the ball.But Kaepernick showed he's more than a runner. His favorite receiver was Davis, who hauled in five passes for 106 yards.Gore carried 21 times for 90 yards, while James added 34 yards on five carries.Ryan finished 30 of 42 for 396 yards, by far the best performance of his playoff career. But his postseason record dropped to 1-4, done in by two big miscues -- an interception and a fumble -- in the second half.Julio Jones was Ryan's leading target most of the day, finishing with 11 catches for 182 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He hauled in a 46-yarder less than 4 minutes into the game, then made a dazzling grab in the left corner of the end zone for a 20-yard score. He got his left foot down, then planted his right foot about an inch inside the line -- while cornerback Tarell Brown was all over him.Ryan threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Gonzalez with 25 seconds remaining in the first half after the 49ers had cut the deficit to 17-14. It seemed the home team had reclaimed the momentum heading to the locker room, but, amazingly, that would be its final score of the day. The 49ers quickly seized control on the opening possession of the second half, driving 82 yards in just seven plays for Gore's first TD.After a nearly perfect first half, in which Ryan was 18 of 24 for 271 yards and those three TDs, the quarterback known as Matty Ice made a couple of crucial blunders.First, he tossed a pass that was picked off by Chris Culliver, halting a drive in 49ers territory. Ryan ripped off his chinstrap in disgust.Then, with the Falcons in scoring range for at least a field goal, Ryan failed to grab a shotgun snap, appearing to take his eyes off the ball before he caught it. The ball squirted away and Aldon Smith recovered for the 49ers at their own 37."Against a good team, you can't have those kind of mistakes," Ryan said.San Francisco also squandered some chances. Struggling kicker David Akers clanked a 38-yard field goal try off the upright, and Michael Crabtree fumbled just short of the goal line, the ball stripped away by Dunta Robinson and recovered by Stephen Nicholas. But, after that big defensive stop with 13 1-2 minutes remaining, the Falcons went three-and-out.The 49ers drove for the winning touchdown.Atlanta took the ensuing kickoff and used up nearly all the clock while going 70 yards. The Falcons might have reclaimed the lead if Harry Douglas had been able to stay on his feet while hauling in a 22-yard pass.The defender slipped, and so did Douglas, but he held on to the ball. Harbaugh thought it touched the turf and challenged the call, then launched into his tirade when the officials let it stand. It all worked out, though.As for the 36-year-old Gonzalez, who said all year he was all but certain this would be his final season, it sure sounded like the end."I've had such a great life," he said. "I wish it would've culminated with the Super Bowl, but it didn't."
The main takeaway from a 15-minute press conference where Tommy La Stella talked a lot and said very little: Only the Cubs.
Even La Stella realizes he’s fortunate to be working for Joe Maddon, perhaps the most liberal manager in an extremely conservative industry, and Theo Epstein’s front office, which takes a holistic view of player development and built out an entire wing for mental skills.
There aren’t many other markets where one of the last guys on the roster could dominate multiple news cycles, but the appetite for information on the best team in baseball appears to be endless, and this story is so bizarre, even by Cubbie standards.
La Stella addressed his teammates inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse for about 10 minutes before starting at second base and batting seventh in Wednesday night’s lineup against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
But La Stella – the second act in a trilogy of media sessions in the underground interview room, after Maddon and before Epstein – didn’t offer any real insight into why he refused to report to Triple-A Iowa in late July, moved home to New Jersey, told ESPN he might retire if he couldn’t play for the big-league Cubs and finally ended his three-week holdout in the middle of August.
“That’s pretty much between me and them – and me and Theo,” La Stella said. “I understand that there’s going to be people out there who kind of draw conclusions and stuff. And that’s fine. I’m not necessarily out here to make anybody see anything or explain anything.
“As long as people understand that there are things out there that are kind of personal to me – and I’ve shared those with the guys. It’s not necessarily going to be just like a cut-and-dry, black-and-white answer where everybody goes: ‘Oh, yeah, I get it now.’ That answer doesn’t really exist.”
La Stella confirmed the answer didn't involve a health issue or crisis in his family. This reunion became inevitable the longer the Cubs played this game, taking a softer approach, knowing his left-handed swing could help win a playoff game and not immediately cutting him.
“That was obviously a very real possibility that I was fully prepared for,” La Stella said. “I was at a point in my life, just personally and professionally, (where) that wasn’t something that I was in fear of. I was OK with it.
“The way Theo approached it…I was very lucky because he treated me like a person and not an employee.”
La Stella, 27, isn’t sure if he wants to remain a Cubs employee beyond this season: “I don’t know, to be honest with you. I don’t want to say something, because I don’t have an answer.”
And when asked if he missed the game during his retreat, La Stella said: “I missed the guys. The game, to me, that’s kind of just the avenue for the other type of enjoyment that I get through those guys and the stuff that we get to do together.”
How much of your decision to step away came out of pure frustration after being sent down to the minors with a .295 average?
“None of it,” La Stella said. “I know that sounds absurd to say. (But) that had absolutely nothing to do with that. I made that very clear to Theo. I told him when it happened: I totally understood the move. He’s doing what he believes is in the best interest of the team. I’m all for that.”
It got to the point where an exasperated columnist asked: Do you understand how strange this is for us to comprehend, how there’s nothing to grasp here?
“I hear ya,” La Stella said. “It’s certainly not a typical situation.”
Epstein – who’s in his 25th season in Major League Baseball, which should be converted into dog years after all the time he’s spent with the Cubs and Boston Red Sox – had never seen anything like it before.
“There are appropriate times for punishment,” Epstein said, “and standing up for the organization if we think an individual is acting in a malevolent way and putting himself before the organization and trying to do damage to the team concept.
“I can just tell you that after talking to him, we didn’t feel that way. We felt it was more misguided and not malevolent, so we wanted to work with him to get him back to this point.”
La Stella’s personal journey included temporarily quitting baseball in high school, transferring from St. John’s University to Coastal Carolina University and deserting the Atlanta Braves, which he explained as a “completely different” situation: “Somebody close to me was sick in the hospital.”
“One of the things I like about Tommy the most is that he is his own man,” Maddon said. Another thing: “The guy can wake up in the middle of the night and hit a line drive on a 1-2 count.”
La Stella clearly made a connection with Maddon, forged alliances in the clubhouse with respected professionals like Jake Arrieta and Jason Heyward and should still have that unique hand-eye coordination and contact skills. As for the reaction from the fans…
“It’s tough for me to say, because I haven’t read anything,” La Stella said. “I haven’t looked at anything – good or bad – so I don’t really necessarily know what the perception of all of it is. I’m sure negatively there’s going to be some people who don’t understand, or don’t agree. And that’s fine.
“A couple difficult personal experiences for me between now and the end of the year isn’t going to outweigh all the incredible stuff I’ve gotten to see here at Wrigley. It’s a pretty sacred place. It’s going to take more than a couple difficult moments for me personally to change any feeling on that.”
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La Stella did admit that he wondered how he would be received by teammates – and if they would question his commitment to the game.
“I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t something that eventually enters your mind,” La Stella said. “But the thing that outweighed that for me was I couldn’t not do what I felt was right for me, just because of how it might be perceived by other people.
“That group of guys in there is an unbelievably special group. And if there was one team that would welcome something like this back, it’s those guys. I’m very lucky.”
Only the Cubs.
The White Sox take on the Minnesota Twins on Thursday, and you can catch all the action on CSN. Coverage begins at 7:00 p.m. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on White Sox Postgame Live.
Thursday’s starting pitching matchup: Jose Quintana vs. Ervin Santana
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The Bears will conclude their preseason with the Cleveland Browns for the 13th straight season, part of the NFL’s preference for teams playing closer to home in final preseason games such as Buffalo at Detroit, Indianapolis at Cincinnati, Houston at Dallas and Jacksonville at Atlanta, among others.
Correlations between Bears results in Game 4 and what the regular season holds aren’t worth the effort. But several other aspects of Bears-Browns will be:
Who’s up, who’s down
Who plays and who doesn’t have decidedly different meanings for Game 3 vs. Game 4. Healthy scratches from Game 3 typically are at risk in the first round of cuts; five of those DNP’s were among the initial cuts.
The reverse is commonly the case in Game 4. Players sitting out are generally those already included in the roster plans, with playing time going to backups competing for a late roster spot or to show skills sufficient for scouts from other teams to look for them on the waiver wire after the weekend’s final trims. Virtually all of the Bears players sitting out Game 4 last year, won by the Bears 24-0, were ticketed for the initial 53-man roster.
The Bears face some tight decisions at a number of positions, not the least of which is at wide receiver, where only Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White are assured roster spots. Marc Mariani has played his way into quarterback Jay Cutler’s comfort zone and is in a contest with oft-injured Eddie Royal for the No. 3/slot receiver job. Both could secure spots on the “53” as could Josh Bellamy, who was among the Bears’ top special-teams tacklers.
Royal is guaranteed $4.5 million for 2016 but Bears Chairman George McCaskey has been consistent in stating that money will not be the sole reason for personnel decisions.
Rookie Daniel Braverman has been a non-factor in games and has not flashed on special teams. Cameron Meredith has a TD catch but has not stepped out on special teams, while returner Deonte Thompson has not been able to overcome injuries enough to make a clear roster statement yet.
“It's so tough,” Royal said. “We've got a lot of guys who can play. This is one of the most talented groups I've ever been around, just from top to bottom. These guys can play, you can see it out there with these practices and the few preseason games that we've had, the guys are out there making plays, so it's going to be some tough decisions to make because everybody in our room can play.”
A chance for an impression
A small handful of players may see the field simply because the Bears haven’t had many chances to see them this training camp and preseason. And they may just need some work.
Linebackers Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, both coming off leg injuries that ended their 2014 seasons, both started and played nearly two-dozen snaps against the Browns. Hroniss Grasu, a roster lock as a third-round pick, nevertheless started at center and played every snap. Charles Leno Jr., after starting in a trial at right tackle the two previous games, was tried at left tackle and showed enough to hold onto the swing-tackle job while Jordan Mills’ Bears tenure was ended.
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This year linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski was a fourth-round Bears pick in this year’s draft but went down with a hamstring injury early in camp and hasn’t seen the field at all through preseason.
“Truth be told, we didn’t see a whole lot of him,” said coach John Fox. “Obviously, we evaluated him on his college tape. Saw him in some of the offseason stuff. He got hurt very early on in camp. It was a legit injury to his hamstring. He’s been in meetings. He’s been with us. But as far as our true evaluation, it’s a little bit of a leap of faith. We’ll kind of march down that road as we move forward.”
How special are ‘teams?
Non-starters typically need to demonstrate a willingness and ability to play special teams. Linebackers Jonathan Anderson and John Timu were undrafted longshots going into camp but played double-digit snaps on special teams, contributed tackles, and by season’s end had each started three games.
The Bears have been anemic on punt returns (1.9 ypr.) and the Bears have spread the job around looking for solutions.
And pay attention to Browns special-team’ers. The Bears once were impressed by the special-teams devastation wrought by Browns fullback Tyler Clutts in the 2011 Game 4 against them. The Browns waived Clutts, the Bears signed him to a three-year deal and Clutts played through the 2015 season, finishing last year with the Dallas Cowboys.