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49ers win NFC West with 27-13 victory over Arizona

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49ers win NFC West with 27-13 victory over Arizona

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) His new red NFC West champion hat on backward, Donte Whitner stayed put at his locker with eyes glued to the Packers-Vikings game on the television above him - the matchup that would determine San Francisco's playoff positioning.

The safety rooted for Minnesota's Adrian Peterson with multiple chants of, ``Break a long one, AP!''

The scene was the same around the 49ers' cramped locker room after their 27-13 win against Arizona on Sunday - and everybody cheered when Blair Walsh's 29-yard field goal sailed through the uprights for the Vikings as time expired to give San Francisco a first-round playoff bye.

The 49ers had to wait all of about 15 minutes once their game ended to really start celebrating.

Albeit briefly, considering Jim Harbaugh is their coach. He will get this group back to work in a hurry to prepare for the NFC divisional playoffs at home the night of Jan. 12.

Yet on this day, Harbaugh offered plenty of praise for the offensive tandem of Colin Kaepernick and Michael Crabtree.

``I thought Michael and Colin really got us going,'' he said. ``That was a great spark those guys gave us.''

Crabtree's career day and dazzling catch-making display sent San Francisco to a second straight division title and into the playoffs with some much-needed momentum.

Crabtree caught touchdown passes of 49 and 7 yards and finished with a career-high 172 yards on eight receptions, leading the 49ers to another rout of Arizona after a slow start.

Kaepernick threw for a career-best 276 yards and two TDs as the Niners (11-4-1) did their part to control their postseason fate - then waited all of about 15 minutes to watch Minnesota beat Green Bay and give San Francisco the NFC's No. 2 seed and a week off before hosting a divisional playoff game.

``It means a lot,'' linebacker Patrick Willis said. ``I was just telling some of the guys that it's something we don't take for granted. I don't.''

Frank Gore ran for a 2-yard score early in the fourth quarter for his franchise-best 51st touchdown rushing, breaking a tie with mentor Roger Craig and late Hall of Famer Joe Perry.

With yet another new face under center, the Cardinals (5-11) lost for the 11th time in their last 12 games in what might have been Ken Whisenhunt's final game as coach. Brian Hoyer went 19 of 34 for 225 yards and a late TD toss in his first NFL start as Arizona's fourth quarterback this season.

He couldn't keep up with Crabtree and Kaepernick.

Crabtree's outstanding outing was the best by a 49ers receiver since Terrell Owens' 166-yard performance on Nov. 25, 2002, against Philadelphia.

``My dude made it happen,'' Crabtree said, looking at Kaepernick. ``I'm really focused on these playoffs.''

Crabtree caught a 31-yard pass to set up his team-leading eighth TD reception on the next play. The sequence put him over 1,000 yards, giving San Francisco its first 1,000-yard receiver since T.O. in 2003.

On the next series, Crabtree made a pretty, one-handed grab with his right hand along the left sideline on third-and-11 for a 19-yard gain and first down. He made a 14-yard catch on fourth down late in the third, and later converted another fourth down with a reception of 7 yards.

What a boost for an injury-depleted receiving corps missing Mario Manningham for the rest of the season because of a knee injury. Plus, tight end Vernon Davis was limited a week after sustaining a concussion.

Struggling San Francisco kicker David Akers missed wide left on a 44-yard field goal attempt midway through the second quarter, then did it again with nearly the same kick - from 40 yards this time - 24 seconds before halftime. Akers put his hands on his knees and closed his eyes in frustration as boos rained down from the sellout crowd at Candlestick Park.

He missed for the fourth time in his last eight spanning three games and 13th time in 40 tries after setting an NFL single-season record with 44 field goals in 52 attempts last year. Akers bounced back by nailing one from 43 yards early in the second half but was later clipped in his kicking foot by Arizona's Justin Bethel. Akers stayed in the game, then booted a 26-yard field goal with just more than 9 minutes remaining.

Coach Jim Harbaugh didn't rule out a change.

``We'll evaluate that,'' he said. ``It's his job to make the kicks.''

Hoyer exhibited poise in the early moments. He completed seven of his first 13 passes and three straight - for 7, 15 and 12 yards - during one drive as Arizona took a 3-0 lead on Jay Feely's 35-yard field goal late in the first quarter. Feely added a 31-yarder early in the second to make it 6-0.

The Cardinals outgained the 49ers 129-15 in the opening quarter and held San Francisco without a first down.

But that didn't last long.

Arizona ended a six-game stretch without a touchdown pass when Hoyer hit Michael Floyd on a late 37-yard score. Floyd had eight catches for 166 yards.

The Cardinals pounded the ball toward the right side of San Francisco's defensive line where Pro Bowler Justin Smith had been stout against the run all season before getting hurt two weeks ago. Now, San Francisco has an extra week for Smith to heal.

``Today's game kind of mirrored our season,'' Whisenhunt said. ``I'm proud of the way our team's worked. You understand this is part of the business. We haven't won enough games this year.''

Former starting quarterback Alex Smith made what could have been his final appearance in a 49ers uniform when he entered the game with 5:57 to go - playing to chants of ``Let's Go, Alex!'' and ``Alex! Alex!''

``It was humbling,'' Smith said. ``It was very surreal.''

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The Capitals see so much more in Tom Wilson than just the physical play

The Capitals see so much more in Tom Wilson than just the physical play

The Capitals raised eyebrows over the summer by signing forward Tom Wilson to a six-year, $31 million contract. That’s a hefty contract for a goon whose only contribution to the team are some big hits.

But general manager Brian MacLellan sees a lot more to Wilson’s game than just the physical play. In him, MacLellan sees a top-line line player who is a leader on and off the ice. That was evident during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup and that’s why the team made such a sizable commitment to him in the offseason.

Wilson has a certain reputation around the league because of his physical style of play and his past run-ins with the Department of Player Safety. But that only tells you part of the story. When you look at Wilson’s entire skillset and body of work, it soon becomes clear why the Capitals have so much faith in him.

Washington recognized Wilson’s potential early on, making him a first-round draft pick in the 2012 NHL draft.

“Our amateur scouts had a high opinion of him -- the skating, the physicality, the character – and I think they thought there was some upside there offensively that we could tap into,” MacLellan said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Washington. “He did score some at the junior level, but they thought he could get to a different level as he turned pro.”

But because of how he was utilized when he first entered the league, no one knew Wilson had that extra level to his game.

In need of a physical presence to plug into the lineup, head coach Adam Oates gave Wilson his NHL debut in the 2013 postseason. Rather than return him to his junior team the following season, the Caps elected to keep him in the NHL. Oates, however, only utilized him in a fourth-line enforcer role and that’s how Wilson’s reputation began to grow.

Wilson worked hard at developing other aspects of his game, but it was hard to show those with fourth line minutes. No one saw the work he was putting into his game, all they saw was highlights of fights or big hits.

“He came in originally as a fourth line energy player, might have started in the league a year or two early or not depending on your opinion,” MacLellan said.

Wilson’s real breakout season came in the latter half of the 2017-18 campaign when Barry Trotz elected to make him a top line player.

Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov are two of the most talented offensive players in the NHL, but they are not nearly as good in their own zone. Rather than just load the top line with offensive skill and thus limit the situations in which it could be used, Trotz looked for someone who provide some defensive balance while also be able to keep up with the offensive skill of his line mates.

Wilson seemed like an odd choice initially, but only because most did not know how strong a skater he was. Most did not know his offensive upside. Most did not know the type of leader he was.

But the team did. It didn’t take long for the top line to take off with Wilson playing on the right wing.

“From the last 60 games and into the playoffs, I think his game hit a different level,” MacLellan said. “He played well on the first line with Kuznetsov and Ovechkin. [He] brings a lot to our team, brings a lot of energy to our team and I think at the point there in the playoffs that if we don’t have Tom Wilson, I don’t think we’re winning the Stanley Cup. He was that effective down in a couple of those series.”

If a general manager views a player as being that important to his team’s success, a big contract won’t be far behind.

It was a small sample size, but Wilson was only living up to the potential the Caps always knew he had and so a long-term deal seemed like a no-brainer.

“We felt confident and wanted him to be around here for as long as we could get him,” MacLellan said. “Both parties could have wanted a shorter term just to test the comfort level, test where he’s going to be skill wise and the impact he’s going to have on our team, but I think we were comfortable going term on him because we believe in the player, we believe in the person.”

“When the GM and the organization reach out and are willing to do a long-term thing, it’s pretty exciting and makes you feel good,” Wilson said. “That being said, it’s responsibility to continue to improve and help the team win because at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.”

For more on Wilson the player and the person, be sure to check out our mini documentary “Tom Wilson: Marked Man” that will drop Wednesday exclusively on the MyTeams app!

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Why did Redskins choose Byron Marshall over Kapri Bibbs? Jay Gruden reveals his answer

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Why did Redskins choose Byron Marshall over Kapri Bibbs? Jay Gruden reveals his answer

The Washington Redskins released running back Kapri Bibbs on Saturday, and in turn, made a decision to stick with Byron Marshall at the position instead.

The move leaves Washington with four backs on the roster: Adrian Peterson, Chris Thompson, Samaje Perine and Byron Marshall. Green Bay moved quick to claim Bibbs off waivers, so the Redskins will not be able to sneak him back to their practice squad. 

Asked about the decision to release Bibbs, Washington head coach Jay Gruden explained the situation as he sees it (quotes via Redskins Talk podcast):

You know Bibbs is a good player. I didn’t release him because he’s a poor player. Perine right now is Adrian Peterson’s backup. That’s the way it is. We dress one 1st/2nd-down back throughout the game and that’s Adrian. Chris is our 3rd-down back and obviously 2nd-and-long get back on track back. The next guy I like to have is a backup to both of them kind of, and that’s Bibbs and Marshall. And Marshall, to me in preseason, showed a lot of flash, a lot of speed, he’s a little bit better on special teams although he missed the tackle the other day. 

There's a lot to take in, and some fans take exception to Perine maintaining his roster spot. Listening to Gruden and others at Redskins Park, that decision does not sound at all negotiable.

So the real competition was Bibbs against Marshall. 

"I decided Marshall’s skill set [is] something very intriguing," Gruden said. 

The numbers don't really back up that assertion, but a lot of that is because Marshall hasn't been able to stay on the field. 

Head-to-head

In parts of the last two seasons, Bibbs has been much more productive than Marshall, in large part because of durability. 

The Redskins signed Marshall off the Eagles practice squad in November 2017. He dressed in four games, rushing nine times for 32 yards and adding six catches for 36 yards, before a hamstring injury landed Marshall on the injured reserve, ending his season. 

With Marshall done, the team then signed Bibbs in December from the Denver practice squad. In three games, he piled up more than 200 total yards and a touchdown. 

Fast forward to training camp 2018, and it was clear Marshall was ahead of Bibbs on the depth chart. Marshall looked good too in the early going, before a knee injury landed him on the injured reserve list to start the season.

That created more opportunity for Bibbs, and he played well, especially for a long stretch while Thompson missed time with a rib injury. 

In 10 games this season, Bibbs rushed 20 times for 101 yards and three TDs. He also added another 13 catches for 102 yards and another TD. That's good for a 6.1 yards-per-touch average. 

The Redskins used one of their two injured reserve return designations on Marshall, and his first game back came against Houston in Week 10. In that game he had two carries for five yards, and more infamously, Marshall was the running back on the play when Alex Smith suffered a season-ending broken leg.

In four games since he's returned, Marshall has four catches for 30 yards and three carries for nine yards. He also returned two kickoffs in Jacksonville, averaging 15 yards-per-return. 

The stats don't really matter much now, as Marshall is on the team and Bibbs is in Green Bay.

Gruden picked the guy he believes has the higher upside, and if he can stay healthy, maybe Marshall will prove his coach right. 

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