49ers rally to advance to the Super Bowl

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49ers rally to advance to the Super Bowl

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."

White Sox bullpen taking pride in slogging through heavy, high-stress workload

White Sox bullpen taking pride in slogging through heavy, high-stress workload

It might be figuratively held together with chicken wire and duct tape at this point, and it hasn’t been entirely effective recently. But the White Sox bullpen can’t be criticized for a lack of effort. 

Over the last four days, White Sox relievers have had to throw 19 1/3 innings. To recap: Starter Jacob Turner only lasted 3 1/3 innings Friday against the Detroit Tigers, then Chris Sale was scratched from his start Saturday after blowing up over the team’s uniforms and earning a five-game suspension. The White Sox bullpen shouldered Johnny Wholestaff duties and threw eight innings on Saturday — right-hander Matt Albers started and pitched two of those innings despite throwing an inning in the team’s last two games — in lieu of the team’s All-Star ace. 

David Robertson, who pitched a third of an inning in relief Saturday, pitched twice on Sunday (he allowed three solo home runs to the Tigers to blow the save in his second game). Nate Jones appeared in the first three games of the Tigers series, too, totaling 2 1/3 innings. 

On Monday, both Jones and Robertson were given a much-needed rest day. So Zach Duke, Albers and Dan Jennings were called upon by manager Robin Ventura to cover seven outs against the powerful Cubs lineup. Albers blew the save, but Jennings’ strikeout of Jason Heyward with the go-ahead run on second set up Tyler Saladino’s walk-off single to net the White Sox a 5-4 win. 

“We’ve picked up a lot of innings lately,” Robertson said. “Everybody’s just giving it everything they got right now. It’s obviously, we would’ve loved to have nothing but zeros go up, but that’s not the way baseball works. We’re facing a lot of good lineups. And we’ve just hung tough and tried to at least give us a chance to win. Thankfully, we’ve been very fortunate to walk off these last three games.” 

It’s not just the volume of innings that’s taxing the bullpen, though. With three consecutive walk-off wins — the first time the White Sox have done that since Aug. 4-6, 1962 — have come plenty of high-stress pitches. Over the last week, the White Sox bullpen has the highest average leverage index in baseball, and that’s with this group shouldering the generally low-leverage early innings of Saturday’s game in place of Sale. 

“The more we work, the more proud we are of what we do,” Jennings said. 

Still, this group could probably use a breather. Without an off day until Aug. 1, though, the only way to get one is to be ruled out for a game, as Robertson and Jones were on Monday. 

“Hopefully we can rotate, I know there’s some other guys that I know might need a day so maybe hopefully Nate and Robertson are really fresh tomorrow and we can build off that,” Jennings said. “(Or) maybe we can get that eight, nine, 10-run win where we can kind of sit back and relax a little bit, hopefully.”

Manager Robin Ventura said he went with seniority in choosing who to cover Jones and Robertson’s innings Monday, which helps explain why he didn’t use 2015 first-round pick Carson Fulmer against the Cubs. Fulmer’s recent control issues — he only threw 12 of 30 pitches for strikes in blowing a lead against the Tigers on Friday — could’ve played a factor, too. 

“You’re trusting the guys who have been here,” Ventura said. “You’ve got some new faces that are out there, it would’ve been asking a lot to bring them in and put them in that.”

White Sox relievers have squandered leads in each of the team’s last four games, though: Fulmer on Friday, Jones on Saturday, Robertson on Sunday and Albers/Jennings on Monday. In addition to a short outing from Turner and no outing from Sale, the White Sox are missing right-handers Jake Petricka and Zach Putnam from a group that looked to be fairly deep earlier in the season. 

The White Sox relief corps could certainly use a day off or at the least, as Jennings said, a blowout win where some of those young arms — Fulmer, Michael Ynoa and Tommy Kahnle — could polish off some low-pressure innings. But those easy wins have been few and far between this season: The White Sox only have three wins by more than three runs since May 14. 

So if that trend continues, this group is going to have to continue to cover plenty of high-stress innings without a break, at least for the next week. 

“Obviously the bullpen the last few days had to pick up the team, and we take pride in that,” Albers said. “Especially Nate and D-Rob were down today, shoot, they’ve been pitching every day too. Everybody else started to try to pick them up. That’s what we’re here for.” 

The Harbaugh Show rules Big Ten Media Days — and could rule the Big Ten

The Harbaugh Show rules Big Ten Media Days — and could rule the Big Ten

Michigan tight end Jake Butt hit the nail right on the head when asked about his head coach, Jim Harbaugh.

“He’s one of a kind.”

Yes, Harbaugh is certainly unlike any other football coach. He spent the offseason firing off Twitter attacks at opposing head coaches, posting pictures taken with celebrities and starring in a rap video, shouting from behind the wheel of a bright yellow convertible parked on the 50-yard line at the Big House.

He’s demanded all the attention in the college football world since he took the job at his alma mater, and Day 1 of Big Ten Media Days was no different. It was the Jim Harbaugh Show, complete with the star wearing a block-M baseball cap to complement his suit and a sea of reporters engulfing him at a designated podium.

But with all the attention that comes from the off-the-field antics, Harbaugh has worked stunning magic in Ann Arbor. He’s been the program’s head man for a year and a half, already taking the Wolverines from a five-win group that missed out on a bowl game to a 10-win squad that was a win away from playing for a conference title.

“It’s definitely a culture shift, you can feel it through coach Harbaugh,” cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. “You feel what he’s bringing to the program. If you want to say that’s swagger, then yeah, that’s what he’s bringing back.”

And for Harbaugh’s next trick? He’s made Michigan one of the favorites to win this year’s conference championship and a team with legitimate national championship aspirations.

“We have big hopes. We've got big dreams. We've got lofty goals. And all those are achievable. And they have to be worked for,” Harbaugh said Monday. “You can accomplish anything if the work is realized. And those things have to be earned. So we are in the position right now to work to get the things we want. That's the fact. That's the mentality. That's the attitude.”

Harbaugh does plenty of stuff off the field that separates him from the run-of-the-mill college football coach — who else has a picture with Kenny G? — but it’s his uniqueness on the field that had players buying into what he was trying to accomplish.

Harbaugh, the man with “enthusiasm unknown to mankind,” runs four-hour practices. No joke. And they sound horrible.

“Being out there for four hours? That’s like a ‘Titanic’ movie, man, being out there for four hours,” Lewis said.

But the players saw what four-hour practices led to, and it had them coming back for more. Both Lewis and Butt could’ve turned pro this offseason. But they’re back. Why?

“To win,” Lewis said. “Those four-hour practices, I know he wasn’t doing it for no reason. I knew there was a method to his madness. I saw those 10 wins. We knew that we could be something special, and once we knew that, we bought in. These four-hour practices aren’t so bad when you tally up wins. Trying to be something special, and that’s what he’s bringing back. He’s bringing something magical to Ann Arbor.”

“He doesn’t take any days off,” Butt said. “He doesn’t ask any of us to do anything he’s not willing to do himself. He kind of just forces us to be tough. When you’re out there practicing for four hours, smashing into each other, you don’t really have a choice but to be tough.”

Laugh away at Harbaugh’s zaniness and his over-the-top actions: climbing trees, recruiting at sleepovers and donning a different NFL or NBA jersey at every stop on his cross-country satellite-camp tour. But know that it’s working. Aside from the winning and the impressive turnaround he pulled in just one year at the helm, his recruiting successes have been spectacular. This season, he signed the nation’s fourth-ranked recruiting class — including No. 1 overall recruit Rashan Gary — and he currently has the fifth-ranked class for 2017.

Stuff like “Signing of the Stars” and “Who’s Got It Better Than Us?” They’re extra efforts to make the program one percent better every day.

“I think a lot of that’s big on recruiting,” Butt said. “He thinks outside of the box, and I think that’s big. A lot of us probably don’t understand the reason behind a lot of the things that he does, but I can assure you there’s a reason behind everything he does. He has a plan for everything, but he’s doing most of those things for the betterment of our team and our program.”

Off the field, Harbaugh creates one social-media-friendly headline after another. On it he’s rapidly moved Michigan from cringe-worthy underachiever to conference-title favorite.

The man with the block-M sweatshirt and the khaki pants has the Wolverines heading in a direction that could end with a shower of confetti.

Then, truly nobody will have it better than Michigan.

Cheering section of one: Melky Cabrera adds three highlight plays to the reel

Cheering section of one: Melky Cabrera adds three highlight plays to the reel

The human GIF made quite an impact on the White Sox on Monday night.

A staple of The Melky Cabrera experience the past year and a half has been the outfielder’s personal celebrations that come with every big play. Monday night’s edition included three rounds of festivities critical to the White Sox pulling out a 5-4 victory over the Cubs at U.S. Cellular Field.

Cabrera got the party started almost instantly, robbing Kris Bryant of a first-inning solo home run before he patted himself on the back in only the way he does.

“I think every celebration is a motivation to try to give us a boost to our confidence and for the fans, too,” Cabrera said through an interpreter. “Every time you can make a good play, it’s good for your team and for your fans to try to invigorate the confidence.”

Cabrera not only leads the team with a .303 batting average -- he’s the biggest self-congratulator of the bunch. It’s as if the GIF function was created for the sole purpose of recording Cabrera’s awkward claps or fist pumps after every big play.

On Monday, he opted to clap for himself after he robbed Bryant of what would have been his 26th homer. Cabrera said he watched the ball the entire way off Bryant’s bat and drifted back to the warning track before leaping and snagging the ball just above the yellow line on the left-field fence.

[MORE: White Sox win in walk-off fashion over Cubs]

On his way down, Cabrera landed hard on the warning track before righting himself against the wall, where he sat with each appendage sprawled in a different direction. At that point, Cabrera held up the ball to show the world he had it in his possession before he stood up and clapped for himself with both hands over his head.

“I thought after that play, things were going to be pretty good today,” said pitcher Miguel Gonzalez, the recipient of the play.

It was only the beginning.

Cabrera’s relay throw home in the third inning led to a rundown that netted an out at the plate when Javy Baez made an ill-advised decision to go home. Then in the ninth, Cabrera recorded the first out, which slowed a game-tying rally, when he fired a perfect strike to second base to throw out Bryant stretching a single into a double.

Each time, Cabrera cheered for himself without shame.

“He’s probably his own best (cheering section), but we try to keep up with him,” said reliever Zach Duke, who often views Cabrera’s celebrations from the bullpen. “It’s great. His celebrations, they’re just truly heartfelt, truly spontaneous and he has such a good time playing the game we can’t help but join in and enjoy the moment.”