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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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Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Matt Ioannidis are changing the Redskins defense

Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Matt Ioannidis are changing the Redskins defense

The Redskins spent time, money and draft capital to improve their defensive front. Through three games of the 2018 season, those moves are paying off. 

Construction of a rebuilt defensive line truly began at the 2017 NFL Draft when Jonathan Allen slipped all the way to Washington with the 17th pick. He showed plenty of promise last season, but an injury cut his season short after five games. The Redskins barely recovered from his absence and the team's rush defense limped to finish last in the NFL. 

Washington continued to invest in the defensive front in 2018, drafting Daron Payne in the first round and Tim Settle in the fifth. The 'Skins also re-signed tackling machine linebacker Zach Brown during free agency. 

Add it all up, and the Redskins currently rank in the top 5 of the NFL in nearly every meaningful defensive category. Giving up fewer than 15 points-per-game, Washington is tied for second in the NFL with the vaunted Jacksonville defense. Prefer the yardage allowed metric to measure team defense? Washington (278 per-game) only ranks behind the Ravens (273 per-game). 

Any good defense has strong players lining up from the front to the back, but it always starts up front.

In Washington, that means Payne and Allen at the top of the list. 

"Those two guys are special guys and they need to be on the field," Washington head coach Jay Gruden said on Monday, after Payne and Allen combined for three sacks of Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers.

"We have some other guys that can play without a doubt, but those two guys are first-rounders and very talented, so the more they play, the better they get."

Add in Matt Ioannidis, who has three sacks in three games, and the Redskins have a stout, young defensive line. Almost more importantly, all three players are on rookie, team-friendly contracts. In fact, Pro Football Focus has Ioannidis ranked as the highest graded of the Redskins defensive linemen, probably because of crazy plays like this.

Washington will continue to push Payne and Allen into more situations and more snaps. In the Packers game, both of the former University of Alabama defensive tackles played more than they ever had before. 

"The first couple games we had a rotation going and trying to get their feet wet together, especially Daron, but I think he showed that he can handle the reps and we want to get him out there. We didn’t draft him in the first round to sit by me," Gruden said. "I was impressed with the way that he and Jonathan played, not only at the start of the game, but at the end of the game. They were flying to the football. They were making plays downfield, in the pocket, in the running game. Those two guys together, the vision that we had when we drafted them, getting Jonathan and Daron together came to fruition."

This week the Redskins get to rest and nurse some wounds, particularly along the offensive line. After their bye, however, both sides of the football will be tested. 

First comes a Monday night game in New Orleans with the explosive Saints offense. That will be the biggest test yet for the young D-line. The following week will bring a different, more physical test for Allen and company: Cam Newton and the Panthers.

Redskins fans should be excited about the young defensive front. The play has been very encouraging, and that's without much statistical production yet from outside pass rushing stalwarts Preston Smith and Ryan Kerrigan. 

If the defensive numbers look the same after games against Drew Brees and Newton, then the conversation is no longer about potential. It's about results. 

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Markieff Morris never believed the Celtics were better than the Wizards

Markieff Morris never believed the Celtics were better than the Wizards

The Wizards were going to turn over a new leaf, talk less and let their play speak for itself.

And they almost made it through media day sticking by that pledge ... almost. 

The topic that got them off track? Surprise! The Celtics.

Okay, maybe not such a surprise after all. 

Speaking at the podium, Markieff Morris was asked about the Eastern Conference landscape now that LeBron James had vacated his throne. 

"I think we're the number one team. Raptors are going through a little bit when they changed DeMar DeRozan. So other than that, Boston has never been better than us. The record shows it, but internally we don't think they were better than us last year."

It may not be a coincidence that Morris made his comments around the same time NBA Twitter lost its collective mind about a picture of the Celtics' starting five — Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford — and how good they'd be. 

The Wizards may not have believed the Celtics were better than they were last year, but Morris does have a point about the record.

 Boston finished the regular season 55-27 and lost to the James-led Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals for the second year in a row. 

Washington, meanwhile, finished the year 43-39 and lost to the Raptors in the first round of the playoffs. 

Both the Wizards and Celtics are healthier this year and have shiny new pieces to play with, most notably Dwight Howard in Washington and Hayward in Boston. Those guys could add new life to whatever rivalry is left over from the infamous Funeral Game of 2017. 

Even if it seems like the perfect matchup for opening night, the two teams won't play each other until Dec. 12 in Washington. 

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