Ravens

49ers look to clinch NFC West against Cardinals

49ers look to clinch NFC West against Cardinals

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) Just two months ago, the San Francisco 49ers grabbed control of the NFC West from the Arizona Cardinals behind Alex Smith's near perfect performance on a Monday night in the desert.

Oh, how much has changed since.

The slow and steady Smith has been replaced by Colin Kaepernick, a high-risk, high-reward quarterback who coach Jim Harbaugh is counting on to lead the suddenly fragile 49ers (10-4-1) deep into the playoffs. The Cardinals (5-10) are on their fourth starting quarterback in Brian Hoyer and have lost 10 of 11 games to put coach Ken Whisenhunt's job in jeopardy.

One team is headed to the postseason, the other for a head start on the NFL draft. The only question left is where each will be seeded for their final destinations.

San Francisco can clinch its second straight division title and keep its shot at a first-round bye alive in Sunday's regular-season finale against Arizona at Candlestick Park. The once promising Cardinals are 60 minutes away beginning another offseason of upheaval.

``Sometimes in a game like this, anything goes,'' Harbaugh said. ``Their mindset will be to win the game. So you have to be ready. You have to be alert for just about anything.''

At the very least, last week should've reminded the 49ers of that much.

San Francisco's 42-13 shellacking in Seattle handed Harbaugh the worst loss of his NFL coaching career. It showed how flimsy the 49ers and their second-ranked defense can be without Justin Smith, the versatile lineman whose streak of 185 games ended because of a partially torn left triceps. Smith is not expected to play against Arizona and his status for the playoffs remains murky.

Harbaugh has shown the ability to rebound his team quickly. The 49ers are 7-0 after a loss or tie in his tenure, and he'll need to rally his players again at the most important time.

The 49ers can still secure the No. 2 playoff seed - and the first-round bye that comes with it - with a win coupled with a Green Bay loss at Minnesota. If they lose and Seattle (10-5) wins at home against St. Louis, the Seahawks will steal the NFC West and send San Francisco on the road for the first round.

``It's for the NFC West,'' 49ers running back Frank Gore said. ``That was our goal coming into this season - to win the NFC West. We get a chance to do that this Sunday. That's what we want. We're upset about last week. We've got to win.''

Last week alone should provide an attitude strong enough to keep San Francisco sharp.

Hoyer is making his first NFL start, less than three weeks after the Cardinals claimed him off waivers from Pittsburgh. The former Michigan State quarterback spent three seasons as a backup to Tom Brady in New England, was out of a job for most of the year and then relieved Ryan Lindley in Arizona's 28-13 loss to Chicago last week. Hoyer has appeared in 14 NFL games, including 13 with the Patriots. He completed 11 of 19 passes for 105 yards with one interception against the Bears while operating an offense that ranks last in the league.

``It's a crazy business, but to me it's the best job in the world,'' Hoyer said.

Quarterback will be near the top of Arizona's to-do list when the season is over, although just who will be in charge of that decision is uncertain.

Cardinals President Michael Bidwill said he will assess the situation after the final game to determine if Whisenhunt comes back for the last year of his contract. General manager Rod Graves also might be gone. If Whisenhunt stays, some of his assistants almost certainly won't.

``It's been tough,'' Whisenhunt said. ``This business is about winning games. And when you don't do that, it makes everything more difficult.''

Arizona started the season with four straight wins and still had a chance to pull even with San Francisco after dropping three straight in October. Then the 49ers routed the Cardinals 24-3 on Oct. 29, a game Smith completed 18 of 19 passes for 232 yards and three touchdowns. He also had a 157.1 rating in a performance that earned NFC offensive player of the week honors.

Smith suffered a concussion the next game against St. Louis, Kaepernick took over and had his own Monday night breakout in a home win against Chicago. Kaepernick, a second-round pick out of Nevada last year with a strong arm and fast feet, is 4-2 as a starter.

The sometimes spectacular, sometimes shaky quarterback will lead an offense that has been depleted by season-ending injuries to wide receivers Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams. Tight end Vernon Davis also must clear the league's NFL concussion protocol after getting knocked off his feet by Seattle's Kam Chancellor last week.

The absence of so many key targets will put even more pressure on Kaepernick in a quarterback debate that continues to rage on - maybe this week more than most.

``I just think that Alex worked for seven years to get to the position he was in,'' said Cardinals guard Adam Snyder, who spent seven years playing alongside Smith in San Francisco. ``He was 19-5 (the past two seasons) and had the best QB rating in the league and was doing his job to win games, you know?

``I don't know. It was surprising to me. But, hey, they get paid to make those decisions, and that's the decision they went with.''

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What lessons the rest of the NFL should, and shouldn’t, take from the league’s top rushing teams

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What lessons the rest of the NFL should, and shouldn’t, take from the league’s top rushing teams

A glance at the NFL over the final two months of the season gave an interesting glimpse where the league was headed. 

The Ravens, the NFL’s best offense, were a predominantly rushing team. They rushed for a league record 3,296 yards in the regular season and were the league’s top regular season team. 

The Titans rode running back Derrick Henry all season, which led to him finishing as the league’s leading rusher. Over the final nine games he rushed for an average of 24.6 carries per game, including 30 or more carries in three of the team’s final four games. 

And most recently, the 49ers won the NFC in dominating fashion over the Packers with just eight passing attempts and 42 rushing attempts. 

With a handful of the league’s best rushing teams advancing in the playoffs, there appeared to be a change in the way teams attacked defenses in the NFL.

But those stats have been a bit misleading for the crowd that wants to establish the run for the sake of establishing a ground attack. What the Ravens and Titans did was make rushing the football more efficient than any other team in the league. 

Baltimore rushed for 5.5 yards per carry in the regular season, half-a-yard more than any other team in the league. They were only one of three teams to surpass the five yard-mark — one other team was the Titans. 

When compared to passing stats across the league, however, none of the qualified quarterbacks had worse than a six-yard average when passing the ball. Speaking strictly from the numbers, passing is still more advantageous than rushing the ball, no matter what teams that advanced far in the playoffs accomplished. 

What the Ravens and Titans do have, however, are two athletes that are unique in the NFL. Lamar Jackson was the league’s best rushing quarterback of all time and Henry led the league in total rushing yards. 

So the Ravens and Titans didn’t reinvent the wheel and show the NFL the ground game was more effective, but instead showed the league to lean into the special talents that both teams had. 

While the Titans were clearly better when Henry had his best days on the ground, there’s not a direct relationship to more Henry touches equaling a better day for the Titans. 

When the Ravens fell behind 14-0 to the Titans, Henry had just seven rushes for 28 yards on the ground. Down the stretch, he rushed 23 more times for 167 yards — a 7.26 yard average. Essentially, the Titans used Henry most effectively when they had already scored the winning points. 

The same can be said for the 49ers in the NFC Championship, who barely used Jimmy Garoppolo's arm. But when Raheem Mostert averages more than seven yards per carry, it’s difficult to get away from the run. 

So while it might seem that simply running the ball got teams to the playoffs, and championship games, it was the fact that they were able to run the ball more efficiently than other teams across the league. Rushing attempts weren’t the reason those teams won, but how they used those rushing attempts instead.

And when Jackson and Henry are leading the charge, it’s hard not to give them the ball.

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DC United acquires midefielder Julian Gressel from Atlanta United

DC United acquires midefielder Julian Gressel from Atlanta United

One week after paying a record-breaking transfer fee to acquire Edison Flores, DC United added another midfielder to the roster in the form of Julian Gressel. 

DC United acquired Gressel from Atlanta United via transfer Tuesday for $650,000 in 2020 Target Allocation Money (TAM) and $100,000 in TAM for 2021. Additional compensation could be owed to Atlanta based on performance incentives. 

Gressel was the eighth overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft and has led the league in assists since debuting with Atlanta in 2017. Over his first 98 career appearances, he's recorded 32 assists to go along with 15 career goals. 

"[Gressel] has impressed throughout his time in MLS and has been a major component to Atlanta’s success in the league since 2017," DC GM and VP of Soccer Operations Dave Kasper said in a statement. "Last year, he led Atlanta in assists and chances created while also scoring eight goals so we’re looking forward to adding his impressive goal creating ability and eye for goal to our roster in 2020 and beyond."

Gressel was the 2017 MLS Rookie of the Year after scoring five goals and recorded nine assists in his first 32 appearances as a pro. 

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More DC United news