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Crabtree caps career year with Super Bowl berth

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Crabtree caps career year with Super Bowl berth

NEW ORLEANS (AP) Michael Crabtree refused to remove the black 49ers beanie and reveal his hair. Nope, not going to do it.

Crabtree is trying to maintain every possible element of surprise he might still have left heading into his first Super Bowl - and will certainly take any advantage he can get this week.

Not that his `do has much to do with it. But this is Crabtree, quirky and superstitious, a guy still trying to shed that diva label he picked up as a college star at Texas Tech. It's something his San Francisco teammates are quick to dismiss, insisting that's not the case.

The dynamic, play-making wide receiver will be a primary focus for the Baltimore Ravens' secondary come Sunday at the Superdome. Crabtree is as dangerous after the catch as he is dodging defensive backs to make acrobatic catches or finding ways to keep both feet inbounds while tiptoeing the sideline.

``A lot of coaches can coach a route and how you catch the ball, but after the catch it's really all you,'' he said. ``That's what makes you special.''

No matter his catches or number of chances this weekend, Crabtree cares about only one thing: capping his career season with a championship ring. The fanfare and media frenzy, he'll take it or leave it (his voice was hoarse Wednesday from all the talking). He is still coming to terms with being a public figure, and the constant scrutiny that goes along with it.

Just last week, Crabtree learned he wouldn't face charges for an alleged sexual assault in a hotel after the 49ers beat Green Bay in the NFC divisional playoffs on Jan. 12. The San Francisco district attorney announced Friday there would be no charges ``at this time.'' The wideout was never arrested or detained, and police said he cooperated with the investigation.

``I was disappointed in the allegations,'' Crabtree said Wednesday morning, before heading off to practice at Saints headquarters. ``It's over now.''

Crabtree still carries a chip on his shoulder and is out to prove he should have been drafted higher. He held out for 71 days as a rookie before signing in October 2009 and becoming a starter less than three weeks later. He wouldn't change much about how things have gone so early in his NFL career.

After all, had he gone to the Oakland Raiders with the seventh overall pick that year - they selected Darrius Heyward-Bey instead - Crabtree would be watching after yet another losing season in the East Bay. The Niners grabbed him three spots later at No. 10.

``I watched him as a youngster, I watched him in college,'' Baltimore receiver Jacoby Jones said. ``When he came out and he held out, I was interested to see what he was going to do. He came in and I was like, `This kid can play.' I like his game. He's got great hands, great route runner.''

Colin Kaepernick sure thinks so. Crabtree quickly became the second-year quarterback's top target after he took over the starting job under center midseason.

Kaepernick's passes come so fast they require extra concentration and ``you've just got to focus at all times on his ball.''

``He does a lot of things well and he's a very physical receiver,'' Kaepernick said. ``He wants to get in the end zone every time he touches the ball. As a quarterback, that's something you love.''

Crabtree receives guidance from a couple of other characters who have dazzled at his position - teammate Randy Moss and former 49ers star Terrell Owens. Moss tells Crabtree like it is, on the field and off, while T.O. offers advice from time to time via text messages.

They've got a few things in common, too.

In the season finale against Arizona on Dec. 30, Crabtree caught two touchdowns and finished with a career-high 172 yards on eight receptions. It was the best outing by a 49ers receiver since Owens' 166-yard performance in November 2002. Crabtree, finally healthy for a full season after a series of injuries in his first three seasons, also became San Francisco's first 1,000-yard receiver since T.O. in `03.

If he and Kaepernick can keep their good thing going, Crabtree certainly has a chance at a championship.

``He's a great runner and he has great ability to make people miss,'' Ravens cornerback Cary Williams said. ``He's elusive. He's a guy that can put his foot in the ground and move and get to a different direction. He's having a great year and he's done some great things for that team. We look forward to the challenge out there of going against him.''

Crabtree keeps defenders guessing on every down with his big-play potential all over the field.

He finished with career highs of nine touchdowns, 85 catches and 1,105 yards this season. That included five TDs and 30 catches on third-down plays - both stats among the top five in the NFL.

Teammate Frank Gore describes his recent play as the ``Texas Tech Crabtree.''

Crabtree took it personally when the 49ers failed to reach last year's Super Bowl after a 20-17 overtime loss to the eventual champion New York Giants. San Francisco's receiving corps managed one catch for 3 yards that game. It was his reception, but hardly enough.

``I can't really pinpoint the things that Crabtree has picked up,'' Moss said. ``I just told him when I first came I really wanted to work, I just wanted to be out there with him to make plays for him. Michael Crabtree hasn't let me down, he really hasn't. Everybody has little stumbles in the road. It's great to see a person to overcome so many things. His whole 49ers career he's had some stumbles and hasn't been able to complete a whole season, but to go out there and make the plays he's made this year, my hat's off to him.''

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Ravens preparing for ‘raucous’ atmosphere in Kansas City on Sunday

Ravens preparing for ‘raucous’ atmosphere in Kansas City on Sunday

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens offense will be able to see Lamar Jackson just fine this Sunday. They just won’t be able to hear him. 

As the Ravens head to Arrowhead Stadium, one of the loudest venues in the NFL, they'll have to adjust some of their offensive calls when facing the Chiefs defense — and their crowd.

“It gets loud there, for sure, so we’ve been working on various cadences starting, really, in the spring,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “And there’ll be a lot of visual communication going on. We’ll mix in some cadence, but we’ll probably use a lot of what we call ‘silent count’. There are a lot of various cadences we have in the silent count, and we’ve been working them for a while.”

The Ravens have some experience playing in front of a crowd commonly known as among the most hostile in sports. They played in Kansas City last season in Week 14, falling in overtime.

“We know it’s going to be louder, so we’re just going to have to bring our volume up,” center Matt Skura said. “Just making sure everyone is on the same page. Whether that’s in the huddle, leaving the huddle or up at the line of scrimmage, if anyone has any doubt, just ask. As long as we’re on the same page, it’ll be good. Nothing really too much changes."

It won’t be the first time the Ravens venture into a hostile crowd this season, as they’ll head to Seattle on Oct. 20 this season. 

Left tackle Ronnie Stanley and right guard Marshal Yanda both stressed the importance of being on the same page as an offensive unit, with communication expected to be limited. 

The important part, however, is making sure nothing changes too much offensively. 

“K.C. is a big stadium, and every seat will be full,” coach John Harbaugh said. “They’re raucous. They do a great job with that, and our offense, especially, is going to have to be on-point with that. So, yes, that’s going to be important. We’re working hard on it; we have been. I really feel like we’ll be good with it, but [there is] nothing like the real thing.”

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A view from the other side: A Q&A with a Kansas City Chiefs columnist

A view from the other side: A Q&A with a Kansas City Chiefs columnist

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ahead of the Ravens and Chiefs game this Sunday, NBC Sports Washington reached out to Sam Mellinger, a columnist for The Kansas City Star. 

Here’s what Mellinger and the Chiefs are saying about this week’s game between two 2-0 opponents in a rematch of last year’s thrilling 27-24 overtime finish. 

Note: Mellinger’s answers were over email.

Q: The Ravens have mentioned that last year's wild overtime finish has been somewhat of a learning experience for them. Have the Chiefs said the same? Or is there no carryover from year-to-year?

A: That game has been talked about a lot here. It's still Patrick Mahomes' only game under 26 points in regulation. There are a dozen different moments that had to go the Chiefs' way to win that one, even beyond the 4th and 9 that everyone talks about. The carryover is probably less of a thing for the defense than offense, just because that side of the ball has been almost completely overhauled.

Q: Lamar Jackson has been one of the league's most impressive quarterbacks so far this season — what have the Chiefs and their coaches said about his progression from year 1 to year 2? 

A: The Chiefs are always complimentary of their opponents. They could play the Dolphins this year and Andy Reid would talk about being excited for the challenge of playing a good football team with good players and good coaches. That's just how they go. But we all have b.s. detecters, right? And the talk is more sincere this week. Jackson and the Ravens do a lot of things well that match up against what the Chiefs don't do well. Jackson is a problem for everyone, but particularly for the Chiefs. Their improved speed at linebacker and rookie safety Juan Thornhill will be especially tested this weekend.

Q: There's been a lot made of Mahomes' progression in his second year, has that been discussed by the Chiefs in what to expect from Jackson this week?

A: The connection with Mahomes hasn't come up specifically, unless I've missed something, but yeah they've talked about Jackson looking more comfortable and advanced this year than last, which I believe was just his fourth start.

Q: In terms of defending the run and pass from Jackson, what have the Chiefs stressed as difficulties in defending both? What are the keys to that? 

A: They don't reveal a lot beyond cliches, but basically the Chiefs are going to need to set the edge, stay disciplined, and perhaps even put one of their faster linebackers or even a safety as a spy against Jackson. The Chiefs have been pretty terrible defending the run for some time now. The Ravens could have a lot of success there.

Q: The Ravens have one of the better secondaries in the NFL, how do you see the matchup between all of the Chiefs weapons and the Ravens secondary playing out?

A: The Chiefs have enough weapons and the right quarterback and a scheme that once allowed Alex Smith to lead the league in passer rating, so the stock answer is that this offense is too much of a problem for any secondary. But the answer this week is a little different, I think, because the Chiefs won't have Tyreek Hill and the Ravens signed Earl Thomas. That matters. A lot. Thomas is a Hall of Famer still relatively close to his peak, and his ability as a sort of center fielder — both his range and mind — could cut the top off some of what the Chiefs want to do. The combination of Mahomes' arm strength and Hill's speed often stretches defenses past the point of recognition, but that part of the game will be in closer balance now.

Q: What's a particular matchup (position or individual) that you're interested in seeing on Sunday?

A: I think we all tend to think of these things through the lens of the team we follow the closest, but the two that come first to mind are Cam Irving and Juan Thornhill. Irving will start at left tackle for the injured Eric Fisher. Irving is a representative lineman — they're not pushing a practice squad guy out there — but he got trucked in the run game last week against the Raiders. The Ravens are tough and physical and disguise their blitzes really well, so that could be a particular problem for a Chiefs team without their starting left tackle and (likely) at least one of their two top running backs.

Thornhill is sort of the Chiefs' version of what we were just talking about with Earl Thomas. Thornhill is obviously not in Thomas' class, I'm not saying that, but he's a similar profile: center fielder type of a safety with length and athleticism. Hollywood Brown with more comfort from Jackson in the pass game will stretch the field more than the last time these teams played. The Chiefs' corners are inconsistent, and can be had. Thornhill will be relied upon.

Q: If you had to put a prediction on the game, what would that be?

A: I did picks before the season, and this is one of three games I had the Chiefs losing. I'll stick with that. The Ravens look like the best team the Chiefs will play this season other than the Patriots, and like I mentioned before, a lot of the things they do well are particular problems for the Chiefs. I know the line is close to a touchdown, and I guess I can understand why, but I'm expecting this to be a really hard game for the Chiefs. The Ravens beat Mahomes up last year more than anyone else has been able to, and now the Chiefs are down a lineman and short on running backs for pass protection. No outcome would be surprising other than a blowout either way, but I think the Ravens can get this one.