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Bowman, 49ers shut down Falcons in 2nd half

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Bowman, 49ers shut down Falcons in 2nd half

ATLANTA (AP) Everything was going wrong for the San Francisco 49ers and their proud defense.

Julio Jones and the Atlanta Falcons gouged them so often in the early stages of the NFC title game that the 49ers seemed too stunned to respond.

``It was us, it wasn't them at all,'' San Francisco linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. ``We weren't communicating, playing the way we want to play. We regrouped in the second half and played our game.''

They certainly did.

Bowman, Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks combined to stop the Falcons 10 yards short of the end zone in the closing minutes of a 28-24 victory Sunday that sent San Francisco to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995.

The 49ers will play Baltimore for the NFL title in New Orleans on Feb. 3. The Ravens beat the New England Patriots 28-13 in Sunday's AFC title game.

After Bowman essentially sealed the game by breaking up a fourth-down pass from Matt Ryan to Roddy White with 1:09 remaining, the Falcons had time to run just one more desperate play before the buzzer sounded.

It was yet another big play for a defense that clamped down on Ryan and Atlanta's high-powered passing attack over the final 30 minutes.

``They've got some horses, man,'' San Francisco defensive tackle Justin Smith said. ``They made it tough on us. We made some adjustments at half, played a little bit better, but our offense picked up a lot of slack today, kept us rolling, kept us in it and we were able to win it.''

The Falcons got off to a dominant start as Ryan and Julio Jones combined for a pair of touchdowns that helped make it 17-0 early in the second quarter and 24-14 at halftime.

But midway through the third, cornerback Chris Culliver intercepted a pass at the San Francisco 38 that allowed the defense to build confidence.

Though the Niners' offense failed to score off the turnover when David Akers missed a 38-yard field goal attempt, defensive end Aldon Smith followed on the next defensive series by recovering Ryan's fumble on a botched shotgun snap.

The offense again failed to score when receiver Michael Crabtree lost a fumble at the Atlanta 1, but after forcing the Falcons to an ensuing three-and-out, the defense was delighted to see Frank Gore run for a 9-yard touchdown and a 28-24 lead.

``We believe in our offense,'' Willis said. ``We understand that if we get stops, they're going to score points.''

The turn of events contrasted sharply from the early stages of the game when the 49ers appeared to have no answer for Ryan, White, Jones and Tony Gonzalez.

By the first minute of the second quarter, Jones had scored two TDs, beating cornerback Tarell Brown both times. On the first score, it seemed that Brown mistakenly released Jones on a deep route, and the blown coverage allowed Jones to outrun free safety Dashon Goldson for a 46-yard score.

After Falcons kicker Matt Bryant's 35-yard field goal made it 10-0 on Atlanta's second possession, Ryan and Jones hooked up on a 20-yard TD. Jones caught the ball over his right shoulder in the left back corner of the end zone and deftly kept both feet inbounds to make it 17-0.

Jones and White combined for 226 yards receiving on 13 catches in the first half, many of them coming on underneath crossing routes as the two wideouts made several athletic plays.

In the second half, however, Jones and White combined for six catches and 62 yards.

Good fortune helped the Niners rally, too.

On the Falcons' final drive, cornerback Carlos Rogers fell down while covering slot receiver Harry Douglas on a deep pass near the right sideline, but San Francisco caught a big break when Douglas stumbled on his way to making a disputed 22-yard catch at the Niners 28.

Had he stayed on his feet, Douglas could have scored a touchdown on Atlanta's final drive.

``It made it tough on them,'' Rogers said. ``Things like that happen. No excuses. We made the plays and were able to get off the field.''

Such was the case throughout the regular season as the Niners ranked among the top four in scoring average, third-down efficiency, yards rushing and yards passing.

They just needed to reclaim their identity and prove they had moved past the disappointment of last year's NFC title game loss to the New York Giants.

``I don't really think it's destiny or anything like that written on the walls,'' 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.''

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Kobe Bryant received a standing ovation for his final game in DC, then went off

Kobe Bryant received a standing ovation for his final game in DC, then went off

When the Lakers traveled to D.C. on Dec. 2, 2015, for what was Kobe Bryant’s last game in Washington, they were out to one of their worst starts in franchise history.

At 2-15, Los Angeles was in the midst of a 17-win season—still the lowest win total the franchise has ever had. But the 2015-16 campaign will always stand out in the memories of Lakers fans for being the final season of five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant. He announced prior to the year that it’d be his last, setting the stage for a farewell tour as he traveled to opposing arenas for the final time.

Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were among the nine people who died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, on Sunday. His death sent shockwaves across the sports landscape, prompting players, fans, coaches and team executives from across the globe to reminisce on some of his greatest moments and achievements.

During that final season, Bryant is most remembered for scoring 60 points in his final game. But those vintages performances were few and far between, as he statistically had the worst year of his career.

Washington wasn’t so fortunate to catch him on one of those off nights.

The Lakers were playing in the second game of a back-to-back, but 37-year-old Bryant wasn’t taking the night off. After receiving a tribute on the scoreboard and standing ovation from the crowd of just over 20,000, Bryant came out of the gates looking like the Mamba of old. He scored 18 points in the first half on 5-of-11 shooting (.455) as Los Angeles went into the break up 57-51.

Heading into the contest, Bryant was averaging just 15.8 points per game. His season high to that point was 24, which he scored in the season opener.

John Wall wouldn’t let the Wizards, who entered the game 7-8 on the year, go down quietly. He flirted with a triple-double, scoring a game-high 34 points with 11 assists and seven rebounds. The Wizards closed the gap and held a one-point lead with a minute to go.

That’s when Bryant took matters into his own hands.

On the ensuing possession, he found some separation and sank a three-pointer to put the Lakers up by two. Marcin Gortat forced in a layup seven seconds later, so Bryant worked himself into a one-on-one situation with Bradley Beal and hit a fadeaway jumper with the same form that had kids everywhere shouting, “Kobe!” every time they shot a crumpled-up sheet of paper into a trash can.

The shot gave Los Angeles a lead it wouldn’t relinquish, and Bryant finished the night with 31 points—including 12 in the fourth quarter.

Washington would get its revenge, beating Bryant and the Lakers on the West Coast later that year. But of all the moments throughout his farewell tour, Bryant’s turn-back-the-clock performance in D.C. stands out as one of his best.

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Remembering Kobe Bryant's 55-point game in his last matchup against Michael Jordan

Remembering Kobe Bryant's 55-point game in his last matchup against Michael Jordan

As the basketball world mourns the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, memories of his career and the highlights that made us fall in love with him are surfacing. One of the most well-told narratives of Bryant’s 20-year career was his pursuit of Michael Jordan as the greatest player of all-time. 

Bryant idolized Jordan and was relentless in his pursuit of at least matching Jordan’s six championships. He competed like Jordan, scored like Jordan, berated teammates and opponents alike like Jordan and came up one title short of his idol’s total.

On one night, however, Bryant did get the best of His Airness -- in their last of eight head-to-head matchups. 

On March 28, 2003, a Friday night in Los Angeles, Bryant put on a show, scoring 55 points in what would stand as his highest scoring total ever against the Washington Wizards.

The Lakers defeated the Wizards, 108-94. Jordan, who had just turned 40 that February and was less than a month from ending his legendary career, finished with a team-high 23 points in over 40 minutes.

Bryant was in a different zone, though, dropping 42 points in the first half alone. Through the first two quarters, he made 14 of 19 shots from the field, including 8 of 11 three-point attempts. While he cooled off in the second half, shooting just 1-for-10, he added to his point total by knocking down 10 free throws. The performance stands as the ninth-highest scoring total of Bryant’s career, and his three-point shooting that night -- 9-of-13 -- is the biggest reason the Wizards are the only team he shot over 40 percent from three against in his career.

Going into that game, Bryant was already a three-time NBA champion at 24 years old and seemed to have gained Jordan’s respect as a player. But Jordan may have inadvertendly fueled Bryant's performance that night. Ex-Wizard Gilbert Arenas told a story on "The No Chill Podcast" of MJ telling Bryant he could never fill his shoes after the Wizards defeated the Lakers earlier in the season. Arenas claims Bryant didn't talk to his teammates for two weeks leading up to the rematch -- he internalized the jab from Jordan and turned it into the 55-point game he put up against the Wizards.

After learning of Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash on Sunday, Jordan released a statement through his spokeswoman saying Bryant was like a little brother to him.

“I am in shock over the tragic news of Kobe’s and Gianna’s passing. Words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling," the statement read. "I loved Kobe -- he was like a little brother to me. We used to talk often, and I will miss those conversations very much. He was a fierce competitor, one of the greats of the game and a creative force. Kobe was also an amazing dad who loved his family deeply -- and took pride in his daughter’s love for the game of basketball. Yvette joins me in sending my deepest condolences to to Vanessa, the Lakers organization and basketball fans around the world.”


Jordan and Bryant exchanged some fun and memorable banter in not only that game but in several of their meetings towards the latter part of Jordan’s career. Just a month earlier, the two went head-to-head in the 2003 All-Star Game. Each started, and clocked 36 minutes, in the double-overtime game, Bryant scoring 22 points for the winning Western Conference, Jordan scoring 20 for the East.

Bryant actually finished his career with a 5-3 head-to-head record against Jordan -- four of those matchups coming against the Wizards. Jordan averaged 24.5 points in those games and Bryant averaged 22.8 points. Whether Bryant actually surpassed Jordan or other legends as the greatest basketball player is debatable, but most agree that Bryant’s style and how he approached the game was as close to Jordan as any other player.

There was no better example of this than that March night in 2003.