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49ers rally past Falcons 28-24 in NFC title game

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49ers rally past Falcons 28-24 in NFC title game

ATLANTA (AP) The loss stuck with them for a year, pushing the San Francisco 49ers in everything they did.

They didn't want to feel that way again.

Not to worry.

The 49ers are headed to the Super Bowl.

Bouncing back from a bitter loss in the 2012 NFC championship game, San Francisco cleared the hurdle it couldn't quite get over the previous season. And, boy, did the 49ers earn it, rallying from an early 17-0 deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons 28-24 on Sunday.

``We worked so hard,'' said Frank Gore, who ran for a pair of touchdowns, including the go-ahead score with 8:23 remaining. ``We knew that we got here last year and it didn't happen. But we got back and we said to ourselves, as a team, that this time we've got to walk through the door. You really don't get opportunities like this.''

The 49ers used to get them all the time, winning five Super Bowl titles in the 1980s and `90s. Now, with a clutch quarterback (Colin Kaepernick), a budding genius of a coach (Jim Harbaugh) and a big-play defense, they're ready to start a new dynasty.

They were one win away from playing for it all last season, until a fumbled return in the NFC championship game led to the winning field goal in overtime for the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

When the Falcons raced to their big lead by the first play of the second quarter, San Francisco (13-4-1) appeared headed for more disappointment.

But no one lost faith, and the 49ers pulled off the biggest comeback victory ever in an NFC championship game, according to STATS.

The previous record was 13 points - Atlanta's victory over Minnesota in the 1999 title game, which sent the Falcons to what remains the only Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. The AFC championship game record is 18 points, when Indianapolis rallied past New England in 2007.

``I don't really think it's destiny or anything like that written on the walls,'' 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith said. ``It's the team that works the hardest, prepares the hardest, and has the best players and coaching staff. You pour all that in together and it comes out pretty good at the end.''

The 49ers advanced to face Baltimore at New Orleans in two weeks, looking to join Pittsburgh as the only franchises with six Super Bowl titles. It'll be a brother-vs.-brother matchup, too; John Harbaugh coaches the Ravens.

But Jim Harbaugh wasn't concerned about a family reunion.

He was hoppin' mad when a disputed call went against the 49ers on Atlanta's potential winning drive in the closing minutes. Harbaugh leaped in the air, screamed at the officials and had to be restrained by his staff from charging the field.

But the 49ers stopped Atlanta on a fourth-down play at their own 10, as linebacker NaVorro Bowman reached in to swat the ball away from Roddy White on a pass across the middle with 1:09 remaining.

San Francisco ran off all but the final 6 seconds, not nearly enough time for Matt Ryan to pull out another improbable comeback.

The previous week, Atlanta (14-4) squandered a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Seattle Seahawks, nearly becoming the first team to lose with such a daunting advantage in the final period of a playoff game. But Ryan completed two long passes in the final 30 seconds, and Matt Bryant kicked a 49-yard field goal for a 30-28 victory.

After Gore's second TD gave San Francisco its first lead of the day, the Falcons took the ensuing kickoff and used up nearly all the clock while going 70 yards. They might have reclaimed the lead if Harry Douglas had been able to stay on his feet while hauling in a 22-yard pass.

The defender slipped, leaving Douglas all alone down the sideline. But he tripped, too, doing well to make the catch without the ball hitting the turf. Harbaugh thought it did, challenging the call, but the referee ruled it a catch after looking at the replay.

That's when Harbaugh nearly lost it.

It all worked out, though.

``We rose up there at the end,'' Harbaugh said. ``It was a great finish for our defense, an exclamation point on the game.''

The Falcons ran up and down the field in the first two quarters, piling up 17 first downs and 297 yards for a 24-14 lead. Ryan played a nearly perfect half, completing 18 of 24 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns, two of them to Julio Jones. When Tony Gonzalez hauled in a 10-yard touchdown pass with 25 seconds remaining, restoring a double-digit lead, it looked as though Atlanta had weathered the 49ers' comeback.

Actually, the Falcons were done, at least on the scoreboard.

They were held scoreless over the final two periods by the 49ers, who seized on two key mistakes by Ryan. First, after guiding the Falcons into San Francisco territory, he was picked off by Chris Culliver. Then, with Atlanta well within field-goal range at the 49ers 28, Ryan took his eye off a shotgun snap for a split-second and the ball bounced off his hands. Aldon Smith recovered for San Francisco.

``Against a good football team like that, you can't have those kinds of mistakes,'' Ryan said. ``We moved the ball really effectively all day. We just had two chances where we were in positive territory and didn't walk away with points.''

The 49ers are headed to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995, when they won the last of their championships.

``We've come full circle,'' said Denise DeBartolo York, part of the family that has owned the 49ers since their championship days, ``and the dynasty will prevail.''

The city by the bay is rapidly becoming the new Titletown USA. The 49ers will try follow the lead of the baseball Giants, who gave San Francisco a World Series championship in October.

Kaepernick didn't get a chance to show off his touchdown celebration for the 49ers - flexing his right arm and kissing his bicep, a move that quickly became a social media sensation known as Kaepernicking.

But the second-year quarterback who runs like a track star shredded the Falcons through the air by completing 16 of 21 for 233 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown to Vernon Davis. Plus, he caused so much concern about his running ability out of the spread option that Gore and LaMichael James found plenty of huge holes.

Ryan had the best playoff game of his career, completing 30 of 42 for 396 yards. His favorite target was Jones, who hauled in scoring passes of 46 and 20 yards on the way to finishing with 11 catches for 182 yards.

But it wasn't enough to extend the career of Gonzalez, the Hall of Famer-to-be who has said all along this would likely be his final season.

He sure sounded like it was over.

``I've had such a great life,'' he said. ``I wish it would've culminated with the Super Bowl, but it didn't.''

Gore scored on runs of 5 and 9 yards, finishing with 90 yards on 21 carries. James picked up the first TD for the 49ers on a 15-yard run. Davis had five catches for 106 yards, and the 49ers overcame a fumble by Michael Crabtree just short of the goal line early in the fourth quarter, giving the Falcons a glimmer of hope.

``I take my hat off to Atlanta. They played hard. They've got a great team,'' Gore said. ``But we fought, man. We fought and we deserved it.''

And no one was thinking about last season anymore.

Notes: The Falcons rushed for only 81 yards and lost Michael Turner in the second half to an ankle injury. He gained 30 yards on eight carries. ... San Francisco K David Akers had another miss in a dismal season, clanking a 38-yard attempt off the left upright in the third quarter. ... Jones set a franchise record for receiving yards in a playoff game, topping Alfred Jenkins' mark of 155 in a 1981 loss to Dallas.

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Baltimore Ravens 2018 Training Camp preview

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Baltimore Ravens 2018 Training Camp preview

The Ravens’ 2018 season is one of the most anticipated seasons in the last decade. 

From the coaching staff to the quarterback, the future of the franchise will be determined over 16 weeks. The work, however, beings now. 

The Ravens’ first training camp practice kicks off Thursday and there is a lot to keep a close eye on. Let's take a look at the many talking points of the 2018 preseason.

The Great Quarterback Debate:

Unless you’ve been in hiding since the NFL Draft, you know what all the hoopla is about. Joe Flacco remains the Ravens’ starter, but the competition at QB1 just got a little more interesting. The addition of Lamar Jackson has hopefully ignited a fire under Flacco and Jackson will get a year to learn under the 11-year veteran. If the season starts to go south early on, Jackson could come in as their starter and begin his role as the team’s next franchise quarterback. 

A lot could happen at the quarterback position over the next year, but one thing that is certain is all eyes will be on Lamar Jackson when he hits the field at training camp. You can't deny your intrigue. The Heisman winner had success both in the air and on the ground over his three years at Louisville, racking up record-breaking numbers. How the Ravens utilize Jackson will be interesting. Coach Harbaugh has already stated he will be active on game days and that they're experimenting with having Jackson and Flacco on the field at the same time. 

Oh, and then there's Robert Griffin III. We think you might know who he is.

The Ravens signed him to a one-year deal back at the beginning of April, but now with the addition of Lamar Jackson, another big training camp question arises. Do the Ravens keep a third QB on their active roster or do they send him on his way? RGIII has mentioned he's looking forward to mentoring the fellow Heisman Trophy winner in his first year in the league, but how much of that he'll get to do remains unseen.

A New Core Of Offensive Weapons: 

Flacco's declining numbers cannot be placed entirely on his shoulders. His options at wide receiver and tight end have been limited, but Ozzie Newsome – in his last year as general manager – made sure that would no longer be an issue.

Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead and John 'Smokey' Brown became Ravens in free agency and Breshad Perriman will fight for his final chance with the team after they declined the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. There is also 2018 draft picks Jaleel Scott and Jordan Lasley and undrafted free agents Jaelon Acklin and Andrew Levrone. Veteran Chris Moore and Quincy Adeboyejo will also be competing. Flacco mentioned during OTAs that he would be rounding up his receivers outside of practice to build chemistry. Come Thursday, we will see if the sparks have begun to fly.

The tight end depth chart will be looking very different for the Ravens as well this season. There was, of course, the additions of Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews – a pair of Top 100 picks – in the draft and undrafted free agent Nick Keizer. Veterans Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams are returning, but who will be their starter Week 1 will be interesting to watch. Boyle was on the field for 66 percent of the Ravens' offensive snaps in 2017, but injuries have hindered both Boyle and Williams. Williams missed 12 games in 2016 with a knee tear and five games in 2017 with an ankle sprain. Where he sits on the depth chart will rely heavily on how healthy he remains during an extended training camp. 

Critical Year for the Coaching Staff:

The 2018 season is the most critical one of John Harbaugh's 10-year tenure. As you've read many times this offseason, the Ravens haven't seen the postseason since 2015. And if that trend continues into the 2018 season, big changes to the offensive playcallers should be imminent. 

At his annual State of the Ravens press conference in February, owner Steve Bisciotti was questioned as to why no coaching changes – from head coach to offensive coordinator – were made after the Ravens' offense clearly had trouble getting things going all season long.

"I’m not going to give a ‘playoff or bust’ edict to you all, or to my coach," Bisciotti said.

"He’s under as much pressure, probably, than he’s ever been in his life, and I expect him to keep his chin up and take his positivity and his talents and make the most of this season. I may as well replace him now if I’m going to tell him, ‘Make the playoffs or you’re out of town next year.’ That’s just not the way to run a business.”

That mindset is understandable. Bisciotti noted Flacco has been through four offensive coordinators in five years and was comfortable with OC Marty Mornhinweg. Harbaugh's contract was extended through 2019, but if the season doesn't pan out as expected, the offensive could have a very different look in 2019. 

A Fast and Furious Defense:

Linebackers coach, Don 'Wink' Martindale was promoted to defensive coordinator after Dean Pees' departure. Harbaugh hired within the organization to keep the defensive vision cohesive, but Martindale is bringing something different to the table. 

"He's just putting his personal fix on our defense and expanding it, giving the guys confidence to play fast," safety Eric Weddle said in a recent interview. "The idea is to do what's best for the defense, not what's best the individual."

It appears this year's defense will rely heavily on the instincts of its star players like Pro Bowlers Weddle, Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley. The defense has never had an issue being dominate, but you may be seeing a more creative defense come game days with players given the freedom to make decisions in real time. How well it works will be exciting to see. 

Other Notes: 

The Ravens placed six players, G Marshal Yanda, TE Vince Mayle, DE Brent Urban, CB Jaylen Hill, LB Bam Bradley and WR Quincy Adeboyejo on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list to begin training camp. Yanda missed 14 games last season after suffering a season-ending ankle injury. Placing him on the PUP list to begin training camp is most likely out of precaution. He did not participate in any offseason workouts. 

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Lamar Jackson, Ravens rookies report to training camp

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USA TODAY Sports

Lamar Jackson, Ravens rookies report to training camp

Football is back in session for the Ravens.

Their rookies are set to report to the Ravens' training facility in Owings Mills, Md Wednesday. Veterans report next Wednesday, the 18th.

The team is reporting to training camp a bit earlier than most NFL teams. Due to Ray Lewis being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Aug. 4 in Canton, Oh, the Ravens will face the Chicago Bears in the annual Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 2. Teams participating are eligible to begin training camp earlier.

This rookie class is already generating national attention. While the Ravens stand by Joe Flacco as their QB1, first-round pick Lamar Jackson could cause a shakeup at some point during the season. And when it comes to much-needed offensive help, tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews could begin to provide relief. 

Third-round pick Orlando Brown Jr. begins his journey with the Ravens in a more sentimental fashion. His father, Orlando "Zeus" Brown, also played tackle for the Ravens from 1996-98 and then again from 2003-05. Brown passed away in 2011. 

Stay with NBC Sports Washington throughout the next several weeks as we keep a close eye on the Ravens' preseason. 

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