American football: Colin Kaepernick is king as San Francisco 49ers shine on NFL's weekend of wonders
San Francisco have quarterback to thank while Atlanta succeed in dying seconds
Known for his commentary on international relations and US politics, Rupert Cornwell also contributes obituaries and occasionally even a column for the sports pages. With The Independent since its launch in 1986, he was the paper's first Moscow correspondent - covering the collapse of the Soviet Union – during which time he won two British Press Awards. Previously a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times and Reuters, he has also been a diplomatic correspondent, leader writer and columnist, and has served as Washington bureau editor. In 1983 he published God's Banker, about Roberto Calvi, the Italian banker found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge.
Monday 14 January 2013
Do post season weekends come any better than the one just served up by the National Football League? All four divisional championship games were high scoring. One was won in double over-time, another after an epic comeback was thwarted at the death. In the third, a quarterback for the ages laid down the law. And in the fourth, a new quarterback for the ages may possibly have been born.
Even before Saturday evening, Colin Kaepernick, only promoted to starter for the San Francisco 49ers in mid-season, had been making a national name for himself – but primarily on account of the tattoos, many of them biblical inscriptions, that smother his back and arms, and his celebratory routine after a touchdown, featuring a flex of his right throwing arm and a kiss of the biceps.
But against the Green Bay Packers, Kaepernick delivered a performance that spoke even louder than the theatrics, orchestrating a 45-31 triumph against a team widely tipped to go all the way to a Super Bowl XLVII victory next month. His 181 rushing yards represented a post season record and included two touchdown runs, of 20 yards and 56 yards. He also threw for 263 yards, including a couple of touchdown passes to receiver Michael Crabtree.
Next Sunday, the 49ers travel to Atlanta for the NFC championship game against the Falcons, who contributed their share to the weekend's derring-do by entering the final quarter against the Seattle Seahawks with a 20-point lead, only for the Seahawks to come up with three unanswered scoring drives.
But trailing 27-28, Atlanta somehow pulled themselves together, snatching a 49-yard field goal with just eight seconds left, to eke out a 30-28 win. "What a way to do it," said Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez. "I was on the field crying like a baby after we kicked that field goal. I've cried after a loss, but never after a win before."
The victory also brought down the curtain on the trio of rookie quarterbacks who illuminated the 2012 NFL regular season. The Colts' Andrew Luck and the Redskins' Robert Griffin III bowed out in the wild card round. Now the Seahawks' Russell Wilson has joined them: "I knew we were going to win it," Wilson said afterwards, of the moment when his team got its nose in front with just a minute on the clock. "At least, that's what I thought."
For switchback rides however, not even Atlanta-Seattle could match events 24 hours earlier in Denver. The game was supposed to see Payton Manning's Broncos march closer to a Super Bowl date in New Orleans. Instead it produced a 38-35 win for the Baltimore Ravens.
Technically, the score that settled things was a Ravens field goal, almost two minutes into the second overtime. But the moment that will live for ever was the 70-yard pass by Joe Flacco, Manning's opposite number for the Ravens, that arced over the Broncos defence into the hands of receiver Jacoby Jones. Only 31 seconds in regulation were left on the clock. "At that point," Flacco admitted, "you have to start taking shots. You have to get a little lucky."
He got lucky, and the reward is a match with the New England Patriots who defeated Baltimore in last year's AFC championship game. Once again they have to overcome Tom Brady. On Sunday the master eased the Patriots to a 41-28 win over Houston that was more one-sided than the scoreline suggests. Brady has made trips to five Super Bowls, winning three of them. No one would rule out a fourth.
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