From Comcast SportsNetNEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Offensive linemen Alex Boone and Mike Iupati stood in one corner of a near-empty San Francisco locker room and pondered just how close they had come to winning the Super Bowl.It quickly began to sink in, beneath the Superdome on Sunday night as the Baltimore Ravens celebrated, that their season had ended short of the goal.One year, they almost reached the NFL's championship game. The next, they nearly won it."It just hurts, it hurts now," Iupati said. "There are no words to express how we feel right now. We've got to put it in the past now and we can't ever forget this moment. We've just got to go out there and next year is another year, and compete."The 49ers head into the offseason following a 34-31 Super Bowl loss knowing they were right there against the Ravens, and now move forward with the hope of keeping much of the team together and building to get back -- and this time win it all.One big question: What to do with backup quarterback Alex Smith?CEO Jed York said last week he would address Smith's situation soon. Smith would like to have the chance to start somewhere, and the 49ers realize that's a fair request."Last year losing in the NFC championship game, come back this year and you're in the Super Bowl, it feels the same way," running back Frank Gore said. "Any other team probably would have just laid down but we kept fighting. We just didn't get it done."Coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke will soon begin planning for the 2013 season -- not to mention the draft in April -- and determine whether they can find a team for Smith.The 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick lost his starting job in November to second-year pro Colin Kaepernick, who nearly led the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history in the 10th start of his NFL career.A win would have put him right there in the 49ers' storied Super Bowl history aside Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young, who led San Francisco's last championship after the 1994 season.The Niners lost for the first time in six Super Bowls, leaving Harbaugh to shake hands with Ravens coach and big brother, John, afterward as the loser in the first sibling-coached championship."We want to handle this with class and grace," Harbaugh said. "Had several opportunities in the game. Didn't play our best game."The 25-year-old Kaepernick, a strong-armed, mobile quarterback with loads of tattoos and a signature touchdown move -- pumping his right arm and kissing his biceps -- went 7-3 as a starter and gave great promise to a franchise that wants to make Super Bowls an annual thing again.Last season it was another three-point loss, 20-17 to the Giants in the NFC title game, that ended the 49ers' season."Knowing how hard it is to get here, it's not promised," defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois said.Kaepernick finished 16 for 28 for 302 yards with three sacks and an interception for a 91.7 passer rating. The interception was the first by the 49ers in six Super Bowls and ended a streak at 169 passes without one.San Francisco nearly pulled off another improbable comeback, as it did in rallying from a 17-0 deficit to win 28-24 at Atlanta for the NFC championship."We let everybody know what type of guys we've got in our locker room," Gore said. "It's hard to break us, we're going to keep fighting. They just got it done today."The 49ers had three chances from the 5 with less than 2 minutes left, and Kaepernick threw three straight incomplete passes intended for Michael Crabtree, who got tangled up with cornerback Jimmy Smith on the final play but no holding was called -- though Harbaugh begged for a flag from the sideline, signaling a penalty at the officials.Kaepernick directed four second-half scoring drives, throwing a 31-yard touchdown pass to Crabtree and also running 15 yards for a TD. But the 49ers missed the 2-point conversion that would have tied the game with less than 10 minutes left."This is kind of tough, to get this far and let everything slip away through your hands," linebacker Ahmad Brooks said. "The funny thing about it is, within the next few months, we're going to start trying to get back to the same place that we're at right now."And this ball-hawking linebacking corps should be encouraged because the four starters are each signed through at least the 2015 season -- Aldon Smith's contract takes him three more seasons, Patrick Willis will be around through 2016, Brooks through '17 and NaVorro Bowman through 18 after signing a five-year contract extension in November worth 45.25 million, with 25.5 million in guaranteed money.Aldon Smith finished with a franchise-record 19 sacks in 2012 -- falling three shy of Michael Strahan's single-season mark set in 2001 for the Giants. Yet he didn't have one over the final three games, most of that stretch with Justin Smith sidelined because of a partially torn left triceps.Rookie running back LaMichael James, a late-season surprise after hardly getting a look early in the year, is sure this team has another postseason run ahead -- if not as soon as next season.Thinking about the future might be easy for a rookie, yet the veterans know there are guys who go their entire career and never get this far."It's tough," Gore said. "When you're in the dance, you want to get it."
The first came in the second quarter, when Brandin Cooks turned on afterburners to beat a Raiders double team and glide underneath a Tom Brady heave for 52 yards. The second came in the third quarter, on the third play from scrimmage of the second half, when Cooks faked an out-route, jetted past rookie corner Obi Melifonwu, and sped into the end zone to make the score 24-0.
Both deep completions in New England's 33-8 win over Oakland just added to cumulative effect that Cooks has had on the Patriots offense since arriving before the season to become their top deep threat.
Paired with Brady, Cooks has actually become the most productive deep threat in the NFL.
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According to Pro Football Focus, Cooks leads all receivers with 431 yards on deep passes (throws that travel 20 yards or more down the field). In second place is Houston's DeAndre Hopkins with 313 yards.
And Brady, who has long been more effective in the short-to-intermediate range than he has been deep, is now among the league leaders in creating explosive plays from the quarterback position. The Patriots are third in the NFL with 41 pass plays of 20 yards or more, and they are tied for second with nine plays of 40 yards or more.
"You're always trying to work on that," Brady told WEEI's Kirk and Callahan Show of his team's deep passing game. "It's not one particular year [you work on it]. I think that's been a concerted effort by our entire offense, trying to make more explosive plays in the pass game.
"Sometimes your offense is built differently. We actually have some guys now that can really get down the field so that becomes more of a point of emphasis. The way Brandin runs, the way that Chris Hogan runs, the way that Phillip Dorsett runs, they're very fast. You need to be able to take advantage of their skill set . . .
"When we had David Patten we were throwing it deep. I mean, but David Patten didn't run a lot of short routes. I would say Brandin Cooks, in general, he doesn't run a lot of short routes. Everyone has a different role. If we can get by you, I think that's a good place to throw the ball. if we can't, we gotta figure out ways to throw it underneath and different weeks are going to call for different things based on the strengths of the defenses we're playing, too."
A week before beating the Raiders, against the Broncos and their talented corners, the Patriots had less luck pushing the ball down the field -- though they tried to hit Cooks deep multiple times. In Mexico City, Cooks matched up with a weaker secondary, and he wasn't at all slowed by the altitude, catching six passes in all for 149 yards and a score.
Per PFF, Cooks has seen almost one third of his targets (30 percent) come on deep passes, which is the ninth-highest rate in the league. He's caught all 11 of his catchable deep passes, three of them accounting for scores.
"Obviously when you're throwing the ball 50-60 yards down the field," Brady said, "your chances of completion go down, but if you hit it, it ends up being a very explosive plays and you can change a lot of field position and get a defense really on their heels if they have to defend every blade of grass on the field."
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After arriving in Boston and spending some time with his new teammates, Kyrie Irving felt good about this group doing big things this season.
But when asked about the experience thus far being what he thought it would be, Irving responded, “It’s probably exceeded that.”
He’s not alone.
Few would have envisioned the Celtics (15-2) would have the best record in the NBA at this point, let alone be riding a 15-game winning streak which ranks as the fifth-best winning streak in franchise history.
Irving and his Celtics teammates will try and keep it going tonight when they take on the Dallas Mavericks.
Irving’s ability to mesh with his teammates and still find success was among the many questions out there when the Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers pulled off the blockbuster trade this offseason.
Blending in has not been an issue for Irving, bolstered by the reality that his game stands out.
We saw that in Boston’s 110-99 win over the Atlanta Hawks, which was a game in which Irving had 30 points on an insanely efficient 10-for-12 shooting night.
There were many factors that went into Irving’s strong night against the Hawks, but he said it really came down to one thing above all else.
“I just made some damn shots for once,” Irving quipped. “That right there kind of made it seem better than I actually been shooting over the start of the season. It would also contribute to being able to be in the right spots and guys being selfless in their approach driving to the basket or getting into the paint. It’s tell-tale sign of all of us getting more comfortable.”
Here are five below-the-radar story lines to keep an eye on as the Boston Celtics face the Dallas Mavericks, with Boston gunning for its 16th straight win.
BROWN’S POSITIVE PLAY
Jaylen Brown has been on a bit of an offensive tear of late, the last being a career-high 27-point performance in Boston’s win over Atlanta. But even more telling is how well things seem to flow with him on the floor. Brown’s plus/minus this season is +146 which is tops among all players in the Eastern Conference. His closest competition in the East? That would teammate Al Horford whose plus/minus this season is +143. In addition, Horford has had a positive plus/minus in every game this season.
You can count Yogi Ferrell among the ones that got away from Brad Stevens when he was coaching at Butler. Ferrell, who played at Indiana, was a player on Stevens’ radar when he was coaching at Butler. “I recruited Yogi, unsuccessfully,” Stevens told reporters in Dallas. While Ferrell came on strong as an undrafted free agent with the Mavericks last season, Stevens said there’s nothing about Ferrell’s game now that he didn’t see when he tried to woo him to Butler. “He would have been awfully good at Butler,” Stevens said.
While Marcus Smart grew up in Flower Mound, Texas (less than an hour from Dallas), tonight’s game is a homecoming of sorts for another Celtics player – Semi Ojeleye. The 6-foot-7 forward played at SMU which is located in Dallas. A second-round pick by Boston in last June’s NBA draft, Ojeleye has been among the many surprise performers for the Celtics this season. “We knew he could be a versatile defender,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “Probably has exceeded our expectations in that regard with his ability to guard one (point guard) through five (center) at certain times. And he’s been pretty consistent shooting the ball. Right now, embracing that kind of 3-and-D role is what he has to do and he’s done it well.”
DEEP DRAFT CLASS
The Boston Celtics struck gold by drafting Jayson Tatum with the third overall pick. But as you look at the teams that had lottery picks in last June’s NBA draft, few come away feeling disappointed or discouraged by the player selected. The Dallas Mavericks are among the teams pleased with their first-round pick, Dennis Smith Jr. who was selected with the ninth overall pick. He has emerged as one of the top rookies this year, averaging 14.5 points, 4.5 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game. And yes, he was a player that was on the Celtics’ radar leading up to last June’s draft. “We had Dennis in and he was really impressive,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “He’s a guy that’s going to have a great career and he’s got good veteran players around him to help kick it off.”
The numbers aren’t anywhere close to what we’ve seen for the bulk of Dirk Nowitzki’s illustrious career that’s now in Year 20. But there is a demeanor about him that seems to be at peace with where he’s at basketball-wise, even if the wins aren’t nearly as plentiful as he’s accustomed to. “I appreciate his game a ton,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “Just watching him talk on the court, cheer on the bench, sit at the scorer’s table with a smile on his face. You can’t play this long and be this good this long if you don’t’ love it. Everybody says they love it, but he’s got a different level of passion. You can feel it, you can see it. You root for guys like him to have success.”