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Crabtree making strides on and off field for 49ers

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Crabtree making strides on and off field for 49ers

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Michael Crabtree realizes the moment he starts thinking about just how much zip is coming on each pass from Colin Kaepernick, that's when he might wind up missing the ball.

And he hasn't been doing much missing lately.

This playmaking, go-to tandem is on quite a roll for the San Francisco 49ers, and they are determined to keep it that way right into February.

These two sure have been making things look easy ever since Kaepernick took over as starting quarterback for San Francisco midseason in place of Alex Smith. Coach Jim Harbaugh and the rest of the offense are counting on more of the same for the No. 2 seed Niners (11-4-1) in Saturday night's divisional playoff game against the Green Bay Packers at Candlestick Park.

``We've been here before,'' Crabtree said. ``Last year we came up a little short. I feel like I've got a little chip on my shoulder right now and I can't wait to go back out there for the playoffs. Big stage, big game for us as an offense and defense and special teams.''

Crabtree has left his forgettable playoffs of last season in the past, producing a career year that showed everybody why the 49ers selected him 10th overall in the 2009 draft with the belief he would quickly emerge as an elite NFL wide receiver.

Not that Crabtree cares to discuss any of that. He is counting down the minutes until kickoff Saturday.

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

``That's Texas Tech Crabtree,'' running back Frank Gore said. ``It's not surprising. Just a healthy Crabtree.''

He has grown up a bit since his college days, when he couldn't shed the ``diva'' tag wherever he went. He has learned by watching Randy Moss, on the field and off. From running routes to working out.

It seems so long ago that Crabtree was angrily confronted by tight end Vernon Davis during an early September practice two years ago, and then-coach Mike Singletary had to step between them. There have been no such known issues since, and Davis has supported him.

``If we can continue to get Crabtree involved and he can help us the way he did last week, then I'm all for it,'' said Davis, whose role has diminished.

Crabtree led the team in catches (72) and yards receiving last season (874). While he had four catches for 25 yards and a 4-yard touchdown reception in a 36-32 victory against Drew Brees and the favored Saints in last season's NFC divisional playoffs, it was the NFC championship game Crabtree remembers as a most disappointing day.

San Francisco's receivers had just one catch for 3 yards - yes, it was by him - and Crabtree was targeted four times in a 20-17 overtime loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

He's not one to reflect on why San Francisco fell short.

``Just feel like that was last year. I don't really know what happened,'' Crabtree said. ``We were just talking about opportunity and I said something about that after the game last year and I meant it, you know? Because I'm a football player, this is what I do for a living, and I love it.''

He has been targeted no fewer than nine times in each of the last five games, including 10 each against St. Louis and Miami, 12 at New England, nine in a loss at Seattle and 11 in the regular-season finale against Arizona.

``This isn't a new or recent thing in my mind. He's got a lot of skill. He's very productive and he loves to compete,'' Harbaugh said. ``It's not the first time balls have gone to him, or he's caught balls or made big plays. This is something he's done for the better part of his career.''

When at full strength, that is.

After a 71-day contract stalemate as a rookie, Crabtree was sidelined during the 2010 preseason with a neck injury and again a year later because of a broken foot that he sustained while working out in Smith-organized practices during the NFL lockout.

Having him back on the field has meant so much to the franchise turning things around. The 49ers ended an eight-year playoff absence last season and have another chance at returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1994.

Ask anybody around the Niners, and Crabtree has emerged as a leader. One example of his talent: He finally signed his contract in early October 2009, then cracked the starting lineup by the end of the month.

When Crabtree celebrated his 25th birthday back in September, Harbaugh asked him to say a few words on the field after practice. Crabtree challenged the offense to keep up with the defense before a 27-19 win against the Lions - a game in which Crabtree delivered three third-down conversion catches.

If he can do more of the same Saturday, all the better for the 49ers' chances. Last season's finish has weighed on the players' minds ever since.

``It has driven us a lot,'' said the media-shy Crabtree, who owns more than 1,000 pairs of shoes and displays his fancy sneakers on game day. ``I feel like we need to win. I want to go to the Super Bowl, you know? I want to do all those things.''

Crabtree scored his first career touchdown at Green Bay on Nov. 22, 2009, on a 38-yard pass from Smith.

``He's playing well,'' Smith said Thursday. ``I feel like he's the player he's been for a while. It's just a matter of everybody's seeing it.''

Notes: Harbaugh is sticking with David Akers as kicker over newcomer Billy Cundiff, who will remain on the roster. ... When asked Thursday if he's ever sported a mullet hairdo, Harbaugh said: ``I've had the same haircut since I was 10 years old. Business in the front, party in the back, I've never had that.'' ... Toll takers at the Golden Gate Bridge will be sporting 49ers hats and T-shirts on Friday and Saturday, courtesy of the team. In addition, the downtown San Francisco buildings expected to be lit in 49ers red and gold over the weekend are the Ferry Building clock tower, Coit Tower and City Hall.

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Wizards' preseason showed how Jeff Green can help bench score from inside and out

Wizards' preseason showed how Jeff Green can help bench score from inside and out

When Mike Scott left to join the L.A. Clippers, the Wizards replaced him as the backup power forward with Jeff Green and in doing so found a guy who is similar in many ways, albeit for a cheaper price. He is experienced, versatile offensively and even a local guy who roots for the Redskins.

Where they differ on the offensive end is the ways they like to score. Scott is more of a three-point threat, while Green is more comfortable operating in the post. 

Last season with the Wizards, Scott attempted only a third of his shots from less than 10 feet, while Green took 54.2 of his attempts from that range. Nearly a third of Green's shots (30.3) came within five feet of the rim.

Green's ability to score inside and with his back to the basket may end up complementing others in the Wizards' second unit quite well. Three-point shooting is more important than ever in today's NBA and his ability to draw the defense inside can open up the floor for others like Tomas Satoransky, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Austin Rivers.

The Wizards did not have anyone on their bench last season with Green's level of skill in the post and Green showed in the preseason a willingness to pass from the paint.

Against the Knicks in the Wizards' fourth preseason game, Green had the ball in the post when he noticed Satoransky's defender was moving closer inside, perhaps anticipating a rebound. He fired the ball to Satoransky, who pump-faked a three and dribbled to his right before knocking down a jumper at the top of the key.

"It's just smart basketball. There are a lot of unselfish guys," Green said of the Wizards' bench. "I think we just work well together. We feed off each other. I think we know how to play the right way."

Satoransky led the Wizards with a 46.5 three-point percentage last season. He knocked down 51.2 percent off catch-and-shoot plays. Rivers shot 37.8 percent from three last year for the Clippers and 37.1 percent on catch-and-shoot looks.

Oubre shot only 34.1 percent overall from three, but that number dropped significantly towards the end of the year. He can get hot from three and is dangerous when cutting to the basket off the ball. Ian Mahinmi, though not highly skilled in the post, can make defenders pay for leaving him on double teams.

It's not only about threes for Rivers and Satoransky, as Satoransky showed on that one play in New York. Both are solid at catch-and-gos. Rivers is decisive and quick and Satoranksy has made noticeable strides since he entered the league and taking off once he gets a pass. 

Green, 32, is still learning their strengths.

"I try to use their attributes to our advantage and creating what I can create," Green said. "If they can shoot and I'm being doubled, I'm going to make the right play and get it to the shooter."

The Wizards made upgrading their bench a big priority this offseason and the net result may be the most versatile group they have had in years. They can shoot threes, run the floor and, with Green in the mix, work inside and out.

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NHL Power Rankings: Not every night is a big-time game for the Capitals

NHL Power Rankings: Not every night is a big-time game for the Capitals

There was a lot of excitement to start the season for the Caps. First, there was the home-opener and the banner raising against the Boston Bruins. Then there was a trip to Pittsburgh to take on the rival Penguins. After that, it was a Stanley Cup Final rematch against the Vegas Golden Knights.

And all of that was followed up with a trip to Newark.

CHECK OUT THIS WEEK’S NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE

With all due respect to New Jersey, given the slate the Caps faced to start the season, it was no real surprise to see the team struggle to get up for Thursday’s game against the Devils, a game in which the Caps were blown out 6-0. Of all the games Washington faced to start the season, the trip to New Jersey was definitely the least exciting.

But not every game is going to be a big rivalry matchup or a playoff rematch. With every team gunning for the Caps, they better make sure they can get themselves ready for the grind of an 82-game season that won’t always feature a big-time matchup.

A trip to Newark may not be flashy or exciting, but it still counts as two points.

The Caps dropped the game in New Jersey and lost a tight contest against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Where do they stand now after two straight losses?

FIND OUT HERE IN THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS

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