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49ers have late momentum after win at New England

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49ers have late momentum after win at New England

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Jim Harbaugh's San Francisco 49ers hung tough late in the game to stun Tom Brady and the New England Patriots on the road and in the rain to clinch a playoff berth when few expected them to win at Foxborough.

Now, after a long trip home following their 41-34 victory, the Niners (10-3-1) must play a second straight game on the Sunday night prime-time stage when they visit Seattle trying to wrap up a second consecutive NFC West crown.

``This is a huge win for us,'' left tackle Joe Staley said. ``With Seattle winning, we had to win this game. It felt like a playoff game.''

The Seahawks (9-5) have scored 108 points in their last two games - a 50-17 win at Buffalo on Sunday after a 58-0 rout of Arizona a week earlier - so everybody knows it will be another important test for San Francisco's stingy defense.

The 49ers certainly have some momentum coming down the stretch in late December as they gear up for another postseason run, one they hope goes one step further than their overtime loss to the eventual champion Giants in last January's NFC title game.

Beating Brady and Co. didn't hurt as San Francisco prepares for the games that matter most.

``It is real big and it says a lot about this team to travel across the country and play a late game, and in their environment with cold and rain,'' said cornerback Carlos Rogers, who intercepted a pass by Brady midway through the first quarter and ran it back 53 yards to the Patriots 5. ``I am pretty sure everybody picked us to lose. It just seems every time we get on Thursday night, Sunday night, or Monday night, we show up and that is what we did. We stuck with our plan and we knew it was going to be tough coming in. We just had to stay poised, stay fighting and play physical. ... Offense put up the points and we got the win.''

Several of the 49ers said Sunday's game felt like a preview of the playoffs - with Brady and the high-flying Patriots' offense against San Francisco's opportunistic defense.

And this week should be no different when the Niners play in what is largely considered the loudest road venue in the NFL - against a team fighting to secure a playoff spot. Harbaugh is all for his team being tested late in the season.

``I think that could be a positive,'' the coach said Monday. ``I think the thing that the players were feeling and probably anybody that was watching it was feeling was that they're two teams that - two very good teams, two hard-hitting teams - have a lot of pride in how they play, really came out to see who's better, and wanted to be better and wanted to win that game. And it showed. This game will be the same, I really believe that. We need to prepare.''

San Francisco turns its focus to slowing down a surging Seattle team led by rookie quarterback Russell Wilson while also keeping hold of the NFC's No. 2 seed in an effort to secure a first-round playoff bye. Atlanta holds the top spot at 12-2, while Green Bay is right behind the Niners at 10-4.

Running back Frank Gore considered the game at New England a must-win, and will treat this week the same way.

``Yeah, we had to, we had to,'' Gore said. ``We put ourselves in a situation where we had to win out and we knew that it was going to be tough coming down here and getting a win against a great team, especially a team that had a great game last week.''

Harbaugh was quick to credit his coaching staff Monday for using the cross-country flight home not to sleep or watch a movie but rather study game film, from Sunday night and also some preliminary work on the Seahawks. San Francisco beat Seattle 13-6 in the 49ers' division opener on Oct. 18.

Harbaugh watched Sunday's game again, noting that the Niners had chances to get off the field during the Patriots' stretch scoring 28 unanswered points.

``Watched the entire game, offense, defense and special teams and work on Seattle,'' Harbaugh said. ``It's a pretty impressive thing. I've never been associated with a team like this, where the coaching staff is - it's like a work station in the back part of the plane. The computers are on, nobody is watching movies and not a lot of sleeping going on. Really impressed with our guys the way they do that. And the players too, they had laptops and were watching the game in groups and then eventually fell off to sleep.''

Defensive tackle Justin Smith underwent an MRI exam on his injured arm, which forced him to miss the fourth quarter Sunday night.

``It's really going to be how he is today, tomorrow, Wednesday, before we know anything,'' Harbaugh said.

Smith has started 185 straight games dating to his rookie season in 2001. The streak ranks third among NFL players, behind Ronde Barber (213) and London Fletcher (197).

``I'm going to do everything I can to play,'' Smith said after the game.

Notes: The 49ers re-signed WR Chad Hall to the practice squad. ... Harbaugh said San Francisco would fill the final spot on the 53-man roster this week. When asked about struggling kicker David Akers, Harbaugh insisted he will remain the guy - for now, at least. Any possible changes ahead? ``No, not at this time,'' he said. Akers missed wide left on a 39-yard attempt Sunday.

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Why Thomas Bryant's defensive showing against Joel Embiid could speak volumes for Wizards' future

Why Thomas Bryant's defensive showing against Joel Embiid could speak volumes for Wizards' future

The Wizards, as they are expected to be constructed next season, should be uniquely good on the offensive end. They could have Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans (if he re-signs), two of the game's most lethal shooters, spreading the floor. Rui Hachimura has the potential to be elite in the midrange and Thomas Bryant is one of the league's most efficient scorers around the rim.

Then, you have John Wall distributing the ball. There are three levels of offense and the Wizards could have all of them covered with a generational passer setting everyone up. That has the potential to be the type of offense with very little, if any, weaknesses. 

But the defensive end could be a completely different story. None of the aforementioned players are elite defenders and the Wizards posted the worst defensive rating in the NBA this season at 115.6.

That's what made a particular development in the Wizards' loss to the Sixers on Wednesday encouraging. Bryant more than held his own against Joel Embiid, one of the NBA's best offensive centers and arguably the league's most imposing physical force. 

Bryant held Embiid to 3-for-11 shooting while The Process went 8-for-11 against his teammates. Bryant had 19 total contested shots in the game and held his match-ups to 33.3 percent shooting overall. He blocked four shots, which tied a career-high.

"It was his best defensive game I've ever seen him play," head coach Scott Brooks said. "He was aware, he was anticipating, his hands were up and he jumped. If you just do those things, you give yourself a chance for a defensive stop at the rim. I thought tonight he was outstanding pretty much on both ends."

Bryant has some physical tools that lend themselves to the defensive end. He's one of the fastest centers up and down the floor in the NBA. And he has a 7-foot-6 wingspan. Of all players drafted since 2013, only five players have registered bigger wingspans at the combine: Mo Bamba, Bol Bol, Tacko Fall, Zhou Qi and Ike Anigbogu.

Bryant knows his potential on that end of the floor and how he hasn't really come close to reaching his full ceiling in the NBA. When told of Brooks' praise, he downplayed it as just one game.

"It's a step in the right direction. Keep improving every day, that's my main thing, especially on the defensive end," Bryant said.

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Consistency will be key. In the Wizards' previous game against the Pacers, Myles Turner went 5-for-5 while guarded by Bryant. In the team's season opener, DeAndre Ayton went 3-for-5 against him.

But if Bryant can establish some stability on that end, it could solve a lot of problems for the Wizards. Rim protector is again going to be a big priority for them this offseason, as it has essentially been annually. Finding solutions in that area is just very difficult to do. 

Teams that have good shot-blockers don't let them go and when they leave in free agency, they are expensive. If you draft rim protectors, they often take time to develop.

The Wizards, though, arguably need one now more than ever before. They are about to reinsert Wall into the lineup with a surgically repaired Achilles. As much as people have focused on his offense and how his speed could be affected, the defensive end should be the biggest concern.

The injury notoriously affects lateral movement and Wall will have to stay in front of NBA point guards, who are some of the quickest athletes in the world. Defensive structure around him could help compensate and a rim protector would provide a security blanket behind him.

Bryant has a long way to go to fill that void, and he knows it. But Wednesday was, like he said, a step in the right direction.

NBA.com advanced stats were used as part of this research

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Maryland's Mike Locksley forms minority football coaches coalition

Maryland's Mike Locksley forms minority football coaches coalition

There are only three Black coaches out of 32 in the NFL and only 14 out of 130 FBS football coaches are Black. Maryland head coach Mike Locksley is taking steps to change that pattern.

Locksley announced the formation of the Nationals Coalition of Minority Football Coaches Thursday, a non-profit organization focused on helping male or female football coaches of color gain exposure in the hiring process. 

"When I took the Maryland job last year and looked at the landscape of college football, I thought to myself, 'There's something missing. I'm on the back nine of my career and the pathway to becoming a head coach is still as difficult as when I got into the business in 1992,'" Locksley told NFL.com's Jim Trotter. "I wanted to create an organization that would be able to help prepare, promote and produce the next group of coaches coming up through the ranks at every level."

The coalition's goals are to find and groom football coaches of color as well as provide a list of board-approved candidates for job openings in both the NFL and the college ranks. 

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There are 11 board members, featuring Ravens owner Ozzie Newsome, Alabama head coach Nick Saban, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, Washington Football Team executive Doug Williams and Dolphins general manager Chris Grier. 

"We want to use their experiences to help us formulate and produce the list of qualified candidates, so when people say there aren't enough minorities to fill the positions that have come open over the years, we're going to produce a list of qualified people that shows there are qualified people," Locksley said. 

While the coalition isn't expected to provide its first list for several months as the organization continues to settle in, Locksley hopes he and the board members can leverage their experience and relationships to ensure franchise's and universities aren't overlooking qualified candidates. 

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