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49ers face fierce challenge vs. Falcons receivers

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49ers face fierce challenge vs. Falcons receivers

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Carlos Rogers had one word to describe what his homecoming in Atlanta will be like when the San Francisco 49ers face the Falcons in Sunday's NFC championship.

``Expensive,'' he said, laughing.

The 49ers cornerback, born in Augusta and an offseason resident of Atlanta, grew up doing the ``Dirty Birds'' dance when the Falcons reached the Super Bowl during the 1998 season. He has paid for more than 30 tickets for friends and family as he makes an appearance in the Georgia Dome for only the third time in his eight-year career.

``I was a fan of the Falcons. I'm still a fan of the Falcons,'' Rogers said. ``Just not this week.''

What Rogers and the 49ers will encounter on the field could be taxing, too.

Julio Jones, Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez present all sorts of problems for San Francisco's secondary to solve. The trio is part of what Gonzalez calls the PYP offense - Pick Your Poison - that has shredded defenses while catching Matt Ryan's passes.

Even after shutting down receivers Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall and Larry Fitzgerald in victories this season, Atlanta's tandem has a unique combination of size and speed unlike any other the 49ers have faced.

``It's different. A lot of times we'll face a Calvin Johnson and an OK receiver on the other side. You face Brandon Marshall and an OK receiver on the other side. These guys, you're facing Roddy White and you look on the other side, it's Julio Jones. It's not an OK receiver. It's another elite receiver,'' Rogers said. ``Then there's an elite tight end, a Hall of Fame tight end. It's different facing them guys. Coach said, `We usually take one guy out of the game and let the other guy beat us. You can't do that. We have to challenge both of these guys.'''

Limiting the big play has been San Francisco's signature all season.

The 49ers allowed 157 plays of 10 yards or more, the fewest in the NFL. The unit also gave up a league-low seven touchdowns of 10 yards or more, often smothering the most vaunted receivers in the league.

Rogers and Tarell Brown, who intercepted a pass by Aaron Rodgers in last week's 45-31 win over Green Bay, have become two of the best cover corners. The duo has been significantly helped by Pro Bowl safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, part of a hard-hitting secondary that will not be the biggest on the field this week.

``We've seen a lot of the bigger receivers in the National Football League,'' Whitner said. ``These guys are a little different. They have speed, quickness and size. We'll have our hands full.''

The 49ers are counting on their experience to serve them well.

They have beaten Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Rodgers (twice) while sticking to the same formula that brought them within a field goal against the New York Giants of making the Super Bowl last season: pressuring the quarterback without blitzing, dropping extra players in coverage and delivering big blows.

Marshall caught two passes for 21 yards in Chicago's 32-7 loss at San Francisco. Fitzgerald hauled in seven passes for 65 yards in two losses to the 49ers. And Johnson had 8 receptions for 94 yards in a Detroit's 27-19 loss to San Francisco, although most came with the game already out of reach.

Grounding the Falcons' air attack could prove more problematic.

White (92 receptions, 1,351 yards, seven TDs) and Jones (79 receptions, 1,198 yards, 10 TDs) make up one of four duos to eclipse 1,000 yards receiving this season. Atlanta nearly became the only team with three players to surpass the 1,000-yard mark, with Gonzalez finishing with 93 receptions for 930 yards and eight touchdowns.

``They're certainly up there as one of the best tandems in the league, if not the best,'' 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. ``But the whole crux of their offense is not just those two guys, it's all 11. You talk about defending the receivers and you have to, well how does that affect Gonzalez? How does that affect the running game? So you've got to have a good plan and a good mix to stop this offense. It's not just the receiver-driven offense.''

All-Pro linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman might draw the toughest assignment.

Both will have a big hand in defending the 36-year-old Gonzalez, who has caught more passes than anyone in NFL history except 49ers Hall of Famer Jerry Rice. Gonzalez is likely to retire at the of this season but is still a matchup nightmare, showing so much when he caught a 19-yard pass from Ryan to set up Matt Bryant's winning field goal in the final seconds against Seattle last weekend.

Willis said everybody will have to be focused on their role or Ryan and his receivers will carve up San Francisco's defense.

``The thing that guys once told me when I first got here, they say it's all good and dandy when you come in, you can run as fast as the fastest and move as quick as the quickest,'' Willis said. ``They told me the older you get the more you have to have it up (in your head) and I didn't understand that as much then as I do now.''

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NOTES: 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said he has not had any conversations with Randy Moss about next season but made no secret about how he feels about the wide receiver. ``I, for one, definitely want Randy to come back. Hope he feels the same way,'' Harbaugh said. Moss, who is on a one-year contract, turns 36 years old on Feb. 13. ... The team released K Billy Cundiff, signed on Jan. 1 to compete with David Akers. Cundiff was inactive against Green Bay last week.

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Ovechkin-less Caps win in Montreal in return from the All-Star break

Ovechkin-less Caps win in Montreal in return from the All-Star break

With Alex Ovechkin serving a one-game suspension, the Capitals still were able to pull out a 4-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Monday in the team's return from the all-star break.

The power play contributed a goal despite the loss of Ovechkin and Braden Holby played well late in the game to preserve the win.

Here is how Washington won.

The power play

Coming into Monday's game, the Caps had the 30th ranked power play since Dec. 1 striking at only 14.1-percent. With no Ovechkin, it seemed unlikely that the power play would be able to suddenly find success against Montreal. Yet, the power play looked much improved with crisp puck movement that kept the Canadiens guessing. The puck movement was much quicker and more deliberate than the power play had shown of late which has looked far too slow and indecisive.
Washington cashed in with a goal from Tom Wilson as Jakub Vrana fed him from behind the net and he beat the defense to the slot.

Petry’s second goal

Jeff Petry opened the scoring with a goal for Montreal in the first period. Wilson tied the game at 1, but Petry scored again early in the second period...for the Caps.

Brendan Leipsic tipped the puck behind the net and Lars Eller grabbed it and tried to stuff it. He couldn't. Travis Boyd then tipped the puck in front of the net where Petry was trying to cover the back door to help out netminder Cary Price. Instead of helping, however, he ended up kicking the puck into his own net giving him one goal for each team and giving the Caps the 2-1 lead.

Kuznetsov on his butt

All-star defenseman Shea Weber had the puck in Montreal's defensive zone and was pressured by Evgeny Kuznetsov. In terms of a forecheck matchup, you would have to give the edge to Weber in that situation and nine times out of 10, you'd be right. This time, however, Weber lost the puck behind him with Kuznetsov pressuring. Weber turned and knocked over Kuznetsov to try to get to the puck. On his butt, Kuznetsov still managed to get a stick to the puck, passed it to T.J. Oshie who dropped it off to Jakub Vrana. Vrana netted it for his 23rd goal of the season, but the play was all started by the great forecheck by Kuznetsov.

Holtby's third period

When Holtby is feeling it, he is hard to beat. Protecting the Caps' lead, Holtby was strong in the final frame with 14 saves on 15 shots. The save of the night came when Joel Armia tried to tip a puck past Holtby and succeeded. The puck hit the post and Armia raised his arms to celebrate. Holtby, however, plucked the puck out of the air with the glove before it could cross the line which was confirmed by review.

Holtby had plenty of struggles heading into the all-star break, but was strong in the team's return with 31 saves.

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A response game for Holtby, a butt pass and some power for the power play

A response game for Holtby, a butt pass and some power for the power play

The Capitals made sure the one-game suspension to Alex Ovechkin did not cost them with a 4-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Monday.

Check out a recap of the game here.

Observations from the win

Better power play

Even without Alex Ovechkin, the power play looked much improved. The most noticeable improvement was the puck movement.

One of the issues on the power play has been slow and indecisive puck movement. The Caps were much quicker with their passes on Monday and kept the puck constantly moving which kept Montreal guessing.

Washington's power play has focused largely on position over movement which is fine and was productive for several years years. Lately, however, if the passes the players want aren't open, they freeze up with the puck, hold onto it too long, then try to force passes through covered passing lanes. On Monday, each time a player took a pass, the puck was off their stick shortly after. They already knew where the puck was going when they got the puck and quickly moved it not allowing the penalty kill to get set.

The key now will be continuing that puck movement when Ovechkin returns.

A good night for Holtby

If you're going to get all over Braden Holtby for every bad game, you have to give him credit when he has a good one. Holtby allowed only two goals on Monday. The first was a 3-on-2 with Dmitry Orlov and T.J. Oshie playing defense and Orlov misplayed it allowing Jeff Petry wide open in front of the net. The second came as Dale Weiss was also left alone in front of the net. Holtby played it awkwardly coming out to challenge Weiss, but did not extend the pads to try to force Weiss wide and gave him too much room. Still, the defense left him out to dry in both situations.

Otherwise, it was a very strong game.

Holtby made 14 saves in the third period alone and 31 saves overall for a .939 save percentage on the night. It is the first time in eight games he has managed a save percentage over .900.

Turning point

Montreal took a 1-0 lead off a Jeff Petry goal and the Canadiens were all over the Caps to start. Then Washington earned a power play opportunity and, well, it was awful with Ovechkin, surely it would be terrible without him. Instead, Wilson scored to tie the game and the power play looked much improved. Suddenly, the Caps were back in the game.

Play of the game

This is great forecheck work by Evgeny Kuznetsov on one of the best defensemen in the game, Shea Weber. He forced a turnover then made the pass from his butt to set up the goal.

Stat of the game

Lars Eller loves playing against Montreal. He recorded one assist and was one of the Caps' best players on Monday.

Quote of the game

Holtby has had struggles in the past, but he always seems to rebound at some point and return to his dominant self. Todd Reirden called Monday's game a "response" performance for the netminder after his best performance in several weeks.


Fan predictions

Close. The Caps rebounded from a 1-0 deficit and ended up winning 4-2.

Saw a lot of predictions for two goals for Richard Panik who played in Ovechkin's spot on the top line. Panik had two shots on goal, but no points in 12:35 of even-strength ice time.

No goals for John Carlson, but Holtby did have a strong game and the Caps had a two-goal win.

Bold.

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