National Sports Headlines from NBC Sports

Creighton hits 21 3's in romp over No. 4 Nova

PHILADELPHIA (AP) Ethan Wragge tied a school record with nine 3-pointers for all 27 points, Doug McDermott hit five 3s and scored 23 points, and Creighton set a team mark with 21 3-pointers in a 96-68 victory over No. 4 Villanova on Monday night.

The Bluejays (16-3, 6-1 Big East) topped the school record of 20 3s set in 2005 against Chattanooga. Kyle Korver hit nine 3s against Evansville on Jan. 15, 2003. The Bluejays set a Big East record for most 3s in a game.

They hit their first nine 3s and never looked back against Villanova (16-2, 5-1) which had romped its way toward its highest ranking in four years. They made 21 of 35 3-pointers and led by as many 40 points.

Wragge hit eight 3s in the first half and Creighton built a 28-point lead.

Wragge tied Korver's record with his ninth 3-pointer with 13:59 left for a 68-45 lead. McDermott followed with his third 3 and Austin Chatman hit one the next time down for the stunning 29-point lead. Creighton's first win this season against a ranked team was a mere formality.

The Bluejays refused to slow down from 3-point range, with McDermott's fourth 3 extending the lead to 30 and making them 19 for 31.

Oh, and Creighton had 19 3s at the same time Villanova had 16 total field goals.

McDermott, the two-time All-America, tied Creighton's team record with 20 3s not long after, sending the crowd at the home of the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers headed to the exits.

Jahenns Manigat hit Creighton's record 21st 3-pointer to make it 88-50 with 7:33 left.

Somehow, this was the same Creighton team that never led in an 81-68 loss at Providence on Saturday. The Bluejays made only four 3s in the loss.

The Wildcats played with their highest ranking since they were No. 3 on Feb. 15, 2010. They are not going to stay No. 4 for long.

Villanova might want to work on defending Wragge in the Feb. 16 rematch.

James Bell scored 19 points for the Wildcats.

Wragge took all of six shots this season inside the 3-point arc, and with good reason. He's rarely missed from long range.

Against Villanova, the 49-percent 3-point shooter didn't miss at all, at least on his first seven attempts. His seventh 3 put the Bluejays up 27-8 just 7 1/2 minutes into the game. With McDermott running into double teams, Wragge was all alone, even hitting one in front of Villanova's bench without a defender within 2 feet of him. Even with the hot hand, Wragge hit the bench for a spell - maybe he had a tired arm - to rest up from all those 3s.

His teammates picked up the slack. McDermott, Manigat and Isaiah Zierden each hit two 3s and Creighton finished the first half a whopping 14 of 22 (64 percent) from beyond the arc. Creighton's season high had been 16 against Chicago State on Dec. 29.

The Bluejays had 11 assists on their first 12 baskets and led by as many as 28 points

The Bluejays couldn't quite keep their 150-point pace game going and Villanova used a 16-3 run to pull to 54-41 win at halftime.

The Wildcats, who used early season wins over Kansas and Iowa to crack the poll, had no second-half comeback in them this time. The Wildcats had made themselves quite at home at the Wells Fargo Center, beating three Top 25 teams there last season en route to the NCAA tournament.

Seattle's Harvin expected back for Super Bowl

RENTON, Wash. (AP) Wide receiver Percy Harvin could be back to practice later this week for the Seattle Seahawks and is expected to be available for the Super Bowl.

Harvin missed Sunday's NFC championship game win over San Francisco after suffering a concussion a week earlier in the divisional playoff win over New Orleans. Harvin was not cleared by doctors in time to play against the 49ers.

Seattle coach Pete Carroll said Monday that Harvin could be cleared in time to practice as early as Wednesday. Carroll said that was based on how Harvin was feeling over the weekend, but there were still "a couple of clearances" needed before he could practice.

Harvin had three receptions against New Orleans before getting hurt late in the first half. It was the second game of the season for Harvin, who had hip surgery in August.

Report: 49ers' Bowman has torn ACL, MCL in knee

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) NaVorro Bowman tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee when he went down during Sunday's NFC championship loss at Seattle, a person with direct knowledge of the injury said Monday.

The person said that Bowman would have surgery for the ACL tear but that the MCL is likely to heal with rest and he is expected to be ready for the 2014 season.

"It's not as bad as feared," the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press because the team hadn't made an announcement regarding the results of tests on Bowman's knee.

Coach Jim Harbaugh said after Sunday's 23-17 season-ending loss to the Seahawks that Bowman was believed to have torn his ACL, and Harbaugh wasn't to address the media again until Tuesday. Kansas City's Derrick Johnson was chosen Monday to replace Bowman in the Pro Bowl.

49ers linebackers coach Jim Leavitt remained optimistic earlier Monday that Bowman would be playing when the 49ers open new Levi's Stadium next season.

"He's a warrior. He's going to push forward, there's no question," Leavitt said. "He's a special guy, tremendously talented, but he's got such a heart. He's been so good with me it's unbelievable. He's great young man. He'll be fine. We're going into a new stadium and he'll be ready to go when we start."

In addition, left guard Mike Iupati broke his left ankle in the loss. He says he doesn't know whether he will need surgery, but is scheduled to be further evaluated Tuesday.

"This is a bad-luck year," said Iupati, who missed four games with a left knee injury. "I'll probably be in a cast for a while. I'll be here rehabbing. It's day by day and wish for the best."

As the 49ers braced for Bowman's lengthy recovery, they were still dealing with the sting of another season that ended just short of the goal.

Safety Donte Whitner was irked at any Seattle fans involved with throwing popcorn and other debris on Bowman as he was carted off at CenturyLink Field.

"That's pure ignorance," said Whitner, who noted losing to the rival Seahawks "makes it a little worse `cuz I wanted to send those fans home crying."

And how about the postgame comments by cornerback Richard Sherman calling 49ers wideout Michael Crabtree "mediocre" and "sorry" following his game-saving defensive play in the end zone during the waning moments?

"Pure ignorance, simple as that," Whitner said.

Added tight end Vernon Davis: "He talks a lot. Sometimes you just need to shut your mouth. You got the win. Be humble, be gracious and just accept it. ... Maybe he could learn from other people around the league that know how to be a true gentleman that show good sportsmanship."

For Bowman, this is a terrible ending to a career season in which he emerged as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. In December, Bowman's three sacks, two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery were unmatched by any other player all season.

The 25-year-old Bowman, drafted out of Penn State in 2010 and signed to a five-year contract extension worth $45.25 million in November 2012, had 145 tackles, five sacks, two interceptions and four forced fumbles this season.

"He sacrificed his body for this team. He's our leader and arguably the best player that we have," rookie safety Eric Reid said. "To see him go down, it hurts. I'll be praying for him and wishing him a speedy recovery. ... He was surprisingly optimistic (on the plane). He looked like he was doing OK."

Harbaugh, Leavitt and the other coaches met with their players Monday morning, passing out paperwork on the offseason conditioning program before everybody packed their belongings and parted ways.

For many, especially players on defense, having the season end seeing Bowman go down made it that much tougher.

"I didn't talk to him, because there's nothing really that you can say to somebody that puts so much into it and they go out with an injury like that," Whitner said. "From playing up here and being on this high level to being dropped all the way to the bottom on an injury, it has to be devastating. So I don't really know what to say to him right now. I'll say something eventually."

Pro Football Talk first reported details of Bowman's injury Monday.

Bowman still planned to attend a meet and greet appearance Tuesday night at a mall in nearby Concord, according to publicist Theodore Palmer.

Notes: LB Ahmad Brooks is scheduled to fly to Hawaii on Tuesday to join the NFC Pro Bowl team, though the 49ers didn't yet know whether other selections planned to attend or pull out of the game. ... C Jonathan Goodwin said he will listen to any offers this offseason but also might consider retirement. "Deep down I think I'm still willing, but what creates uncertainty for me is being a 35-year-old free agent, which in this time of the NFL can be tough," Goodwin said. ... Whitner and WR Anquan Boldin also are uncertain they will be back with the 49ers. Whitner said he would like to stay and that Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke expressed they would like him to return. "Hopefully we can get something done," Whitner said. "This is a business. Sometimes players don't fit into what you want to do salary-cap wise."

Pats' Belichick: Welker tried to 'take out' Talib

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) The collision that knocked Aqib Talib out of the AFC championship game reverberated Monday when Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Wes Welker tried to "take out" the star cornerback.

Belichick took the shot at his former wide receiver after viewing video of the second-quarter play in the Denver Broncos' 26-16 win on Sunday. Coming from opposite sides, the players ran into each other. No penalty was called.

It "was a deliberate play by the receiver to take out Aqib, no attempt to get open," Belichick said during his opening statement at his season-ending news conference.

"I'll let the league handle the discipline on that play. It's not for me to decide, but it's one of the worst plays I've seen. That's all I'm going to say about that."

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Monday, "If there is any discipline for plays in (Sunday's) games, it will be determined by Merton Hanks later in the week."

Hanks is the league's vice president of player operations.

Welker, who had a cool relationship with Belichick before leaving New England as a free agent last offseason, was not available for comment Monday.

But after the game, he said, "it was one of those plays where it's kind of a rub play and I was trying to get him to go over the top, and I think he was thinking the same thing and wanted to come underneath and we just kind of collided. ... It wasn't a deal where I was trying to hit him or anything like that."

After Talib left with a knee injury, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning took advantage of having the much shorter Alfonzo Dennard covering receivers Talib normally would handle. The previous season, a thigh injury ended Talib's day in the first quarter of the AFC championship game, a 28-13 loss to Baltimore.

Denver coach John Fox said he hadn't seen Belichick's comments but called Welker "a great player, high integrity. I can say that we were not doing anything with intent."

Asked why he would send the 5-foot-9 Welker, 4 inches shorter, at Talib after sustaining two recent concussions, Fox said, "That's a good question. I don't have an answer to it."

But he and several Patriots said pick plays in which one receiver brushes against or hits a defender to free another receiver are becoming more prevalent.

"Teams do a lot of that just to give guys separation and to open up the passing game," safety Devin McCourty said.

Steve Gregory, New England's other starting safety, said he didn't think Welker would deliberately try to hurt a player.

"I don't think anybody plays that way," he said, "especially at this level of football with two great football teams in the Broncos and ourselves."

Besides, Fox said, the Broncos weren't the only team to run a pick play.

"The umpire's in that area. It's a pretty crowded area, so I think offenses have tried to exploit that," he said. "We're not the only team, by any stretch. In fact, our opponent Sunday did the same thing."

Welker, coming from the right, used his right arm to make contact with the left arm of Talib, who was running from the left to stay with his receiver. They collided a split-second before Manning's pass went off the hands of receiver Demaryius Thomas a few yards away.

Patriots defensive end Andre Carter called it a "nasty" play.

"Wes, was he doing his job? I'm sure he was to a certain degree," Carter said. "(Do) I think the hit could have been cleaner? Yes."

But Broncos tight end Julius Thomas was more concerned about preparing to face the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl on Feb. 2 than about Belichick's comments.

"The thoughts and feelings of opposing coaches definitely don't bother me," he said. "We're worried about what's happening this week."

Canucks' Tortorella suspended 15 days, six games

NEW YORK (AP) The NHL suspended Vancouver coach John Tortorella without pay for 15 days on Monday for his conduct after a brawl between the Canucks and the Calgary Flames.

Tortorella went to Calgary's locker room at intermission following the first period Saturday night, which began with several fights and four game misconducts per team. Vancouver won the game 3-2 in a shootout.

"Mr. Tortorella's actions in attempting to enter the Calgary Flames locker room after the first period were both dangerous and an embarrassment to the league," NHL senior executive vice president of hockey operations Colin Campbell said in a statement.

"Coaches in the NHL bear the responsibility of providing leadership, even when emotions run high, and Mr. Tortorella failed in his responsibility to the game."

Tortorella's suspension runs through Feb. 2. He will miss six games starting Tuesday night at Edmonton.

Tortorella is not allowed to have any interaction with the Canucks before, during or after games during that time.

"We respect the decision made by the National Hockey League today to suspend John Tortorella for 15 days from Sunday, with no contact with the team for six games," Canucks president and general manager Mike Gillis said in a statement.

"We would also like to acknowledge our organization's full support for John and we look forward to having him back behind the bench soon."

This is the second career suspension for Tortorella, who missed Game 6 of the 2009 Eastern Conference quarterfinals as coach of the New York Rangers for throwing a water bottle into the stands in Washington.

Tortorella blamed Flames coach Bob Hartley for starting his fourth line, saying he couldn't put star players Daniel and Henrik Sedin at risk just to deflate the situation. Hartley was fined $25,000 by the NHL.

"We are holding Mr. Hartley responsible for the actions of Flames' right wing Kevin Westgarth, who took the game's opening faceoff and attempted to instigate a premeditated fight with an unwilling opponent - the Canucks' Kevin Bieksa," Campbell said.

AP poll: Arizona, Syracuse 1-2 for 7th week in row

Arizona and Syracuse are the top two teams in The Associated Press Top 25 for a seventh straight week.

The Wildcats (18-0) are again the runaway No. 1, receiving 61 first-place votes from the 65-member national media panel. The Orange (18-0) got the other No. 1 votes.

Michigan State moved up one place to third while Villanova jumped two spots to fourth. Wichita State, at 19-0 the only other unbeaten in Division I, stayed fifth and was followed by Florida, San Diego State, Kansas, Wisconsin and Iowa.

Kansas has beaten three straight ranked opponents and jumped from 15th to No. 8.

Michigan, at No. 21, and Kansas State, at 22nd, moved into the poll this week, replacing Creighton, Colorado and UCLA. There was a tie for 25th last week.

View the full AP Top 25 here and check out CollegeBasketballTalk's Top 25 here.

Nadal advances to quarterfinals at Australian Open

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Top-ranked Rafael Nadal has advanced to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open after a 7-6 (3), 7-5, 7-6 (3) win over Kei Nishikori of Japan.

Nadal is trying to win the Australian Open for the second time - his first title came in 2009 - and secure the 14th major of his career, equal with Pete Sampras and three behind Roger Federer's leading total of 17. The Australian Open is the only major he hasn't won at least twice.

It's the seventh time in Nadal's last seven appearances at Melbourne Park that he's advanced to the quarterfinals. He didn't play the Australian Open last year due to a left knee injury and stomach virus.

Nadal will play 22-year-old Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov on Wednesday.

Seahawks star makes big play, talks bigger

SEATTLE (AP) When Richard Sherman gave Michael Crabtree a pat on the backside, got shoved in the face and made a choke sign toward the San Francisco bench, he was just getting warmed up.

Get ready for two more weeks of the unfiltered Sherman with the Seattle Seahawks headed to the Super Bowl.

"I hadn't gotten many opportunities all game and I'm happy. I'm happy about that," Sherman said. " I'm sure if our team knew it was going to come down to a play like that they would be pretty confident going into it."

Sherman stole the attention on Sunday, first by deflecting a pass intended for Crabtree in the corner of the end zone with less than a minute left, right into the arms of Seattle teammate Malcolm Smith to seal the Seahawks' 23-17 win.

But then came the antics and Sherman's words that revealed a deep dislike for Crabtree and satisfaction in Seattle knocking off its division rivals to reach the Super Bowl.

While Smith was celebrating the interception, Sherman exchanged words with Crabtree, got shoved in the face as a rebuttal then made a choking gesture toward the San Francisco bench that he said was intended for quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Asked about the incident afterward by Fox reporter Erin Andrews, Sherman lit up Twitter with a rant that began: "I'm the best corner in the game. When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you gonna get. Don't you ever talk about me!"

Sherman didn't back down even after getting some time to collect his thoughts. He apologized to Andrews, then proceeded to call Crabtree "mediocre," making sure to annunciate each syllable of the word.

"I was making sure everybody knew Crabtree was a mediocre receiver," Sherman said. "And when you try the best corner in the game with a mediocre receiver that's what happens."

It was a fiery, emotional rant from Sherman, who celebrated his first conference title by racing around the field after Russell Wilson took the final knee, then leaping into the first row of seats in the south end zone to celebrate with fans.

"I know how passionate he is about the game of football. He said to me before the game it's going to come down to us making big plays. We've got to do it. Somehow we've got to find a way to make big plays," said teammate Doug Baldwin. "(Sherman) has been doing it all season. He is arguably the best cornerback in the NFL. They were trying to stay away from him the whole game. Eventually they were going to have to go his way and eventually they did and they made a mistake."

Sherman was rarely targeted by San Francisco, with most of the throws going toward Sherman's teammate Byron Maxwell. But when Kaepernick had to make a throw in the final seconds, he decided to challenge the All-Pro.

Sherman stayed with Crabtree, leaped and batted the ball into the air with his left hand. That allowed Smith to run underneath and make the interception that clinched the victory. It was San Francisco's third turnover in the fourth quarter.

"I knew if I tipped it high enough someone would get there," Sherman said.

Sherman then ran over to Crabtree and gave him a pat on the backside, then appeared to extend his arm for a handshake. Instead, Sherman got shoved in the face before picking up his personal foul as his celebration continued.

"Sherman made a good play. That's probably the only play he made all game," Crabtree said. "I ain't getting into that, he knows what time it is. When we're on the field, he ain't doing nothin'. That's one play, you know what I'm saying? ... He's a TV guy, I'm not a TV guy. I play ball."

Sherman said his issues with Crabtree go back to something that happened during the offseason. He would not go into detail about what happened.

"He said something personal face to face," Sherman said. "He knows what he said and he knows I'm going to be tough on him the rest of his career."

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AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org

Richard Sherman's rant part of NFL mindset

Priest Holmes, the superb running back for the Kansas City Chiefs in the early 2000s, would shake his head every time we talked about postgame interviews. The whole thing just didn’t make any sense to him. Holmes was no taller than 5-foot-9, by midseason he probably weighed 200 pounds, he wasn’t exceptionally fast by football standards. He had blown out one knee, blew it out again, got his hip knocked out of joint and had been hit so hard he was not sure how he made it to the sidelines.*

*These were not necessarily called concussions in those days ... and those days were not that long ago.

Somehow, though, he was for a brief time the best running back in the NFL. In 2001, he led the NFL in rushing. In 2002, he was on pace to the greatest season a running back ever had until he blew out his hip after being horse-collared in Denver (this was one of the plays that led to the no-horse-collar rule). In 2003, he set an NFL record for touchdowns.

He did it with study, with precision (he was like Jerry Rice in the way he would repeat his steps) and with an otherworldly level of toughness. In an average game, he would get hit 40 or 50 times by angry men the size and with the torque of Ford F-150s. After a game, he would need a half hour of massage and an hour in a hot tub just to feel something close to human again. This is not unique. This is football.

“Do you have any idea what kind of mental state I have to get myself into to play a game?” he would ask.

“No,” I would say.

“It’s pretty extreme,” he said. “It’s like I have to become another person. It’s like I have to become a warrior. We all do.”

Then he would smile and shake his head and say, “And then, five minutes after the game ends, y’all are asking us questions about how we feel and what did we think of this play, and what’s it like to lose, and we’re supposed to talk like none of that just happened.”

I’ve thought about those conversations a lot. On one level, we all understand how brutal a sport football can be. In a way, calling it a “sport” is changing its shape, making it seem a lot like the touch football game we play on the church lawn or the flag football games we used to play in college. Pro football really isn’t a sport like that. Pro football is about men who can bench press trailers crashing into each other, and guided missiles in helmets colliding with human gazelles, and gruesome injuries that happen with such regularity that we can schedule commercials around them. Not to mention the concussions. You’d have to hypnotize me to play in a professional football game.

And these men do. They hypnotize themselves into this fevered state.

And we expect them to just let it all go when the whistle blows, and we snap our fingers.

This, of course, has to do with Richard Sherman’s postgame interview Sunday. Sherman, you certainly know, is the cornerback who sparked the tipped interception at the end of the game that clinched Seattle’s six-point victory over San Francisco and sent the Seahawks to the Super Bowl. Sherman, you might know, is a fascinating and gripping character. He grew up in Compton, was a brilliant student, went to Stanford as a wide receiver, suffered a devastating knee injury, came back as a cornerback, graduated and began working on his master’s degree, was drafted in the fifth round, immediately became a starter, quickly became an All-Pro and might have been the best defensive player in the league this year. He also was suspended for performance-enhancing drugs, won his appeal and has been as outspoken as anybody in the NFL.

[MORE: Sherman goes off  |  Crabtree responds  |  Sherman called out on Twitter]

He believes he’s the best in the game. He’s not unwilling to share this opinion.

A moment or two after his astounding play Sunday, FOX Sports reporter Erin Andrews went in for the postgame interview.

Erin Andrews: “(FOX play-by-play man) Joe (Buck), thank you so much. Richard, let me ask you, the final play, take me through it.”

Sherman: “Well, I have to credit my teammates and coaches. We all gave 110%. Each and every one of us. We were lined up man-to-man ...

Andrews: “As opposed to zone.”

Sherman: “Exactly. And that means I had the responsibility for the deep route on receiver Michael Crabtree. He’s a tall guy, you know a tall drink of water, and he has made some big plays late in games, so it became clear to me that they were probably going to try and throw over the top, which is something I’ve worked really hard on with my coaches. And ...”

No, wait, that’s not what happened. Let’s try it again.

Erin Andrews: “Joe, thank you so much. Richard, let me ask you, the final play, take me through it.”

Sherman: “I’m the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree that’s the result you’re gonna get! (Looking into camera) Don’t you ever talk about me!”

Andrews: “Who was talking about you?”

Sherman: “Crabtree! Don’t you open your mouth about the best! Or I’m gonna shut it for you real quick. LOB!” (Which stands for “Legions of Boom” ... it had sounded to me like L.L. Bean)

Andrews: “All right, before ... and, Joe, back over to you!”

OK. Well, people are going to have an opinion about that. Compared to the usual pointless, passionless, perfunctory postgame interviews, this thing was a bit like the first time people raised on Bing Crosby saw Chuck Berry play rock and roll. Instead of clichés, we got fury. Sherman was angry and hyped and cartoonish -- I wrote on Twitter that the only thing that was missing was the Ric Flair “Whoooo” at the end.

Tony Dungy wrote on Twitter that Sherman should have showed more class. That’s true. Others wrote that they would be rooting for Denver in the Super Bowl because of Sherman’s act. That’s fine. Others thought it was a bad example for kids, which is a whole other conversation because there is a lot about watching a football game on TV that is not great for kids.

Then again, some thought Sherman was funny (I have to admit, I laughed for like 10 minutes), and his talk was real, and it was way better than watching someone sputter clichés that don’t mean anything.*

*Speaking of cliches: A few minutes later, FOX’s Pam Oliver was interviewing losing coach Jim Harbaugh. And at some point he said, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

“Is that a quote?” Oliver asked.

I have to say, that was a weird exchange.**

**It is a quote. It is Hemingway, from Old Man and the Sea.

I wish it had been a dream now, and that I had never hooked the fish and was along in bed on the newspapers.

“But man is not made for defeat,” he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

But to the point: Why do we ask these players (and coaches) questions so soon after they were under fiery hypnosis, so soon after they were smashing into each other and breaking bones, right as the adrenaline is draining and the pain is beginning to surface? And, more, why do we expect their answers to fit our expectations? I’m certainly not saying that Sherman acted admirably after his interception, the choke sign he made toward 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the taunt, then the “Don’t open your mouth about the best” soliloquy. Of course it wasn’t admirable.

But I have no idea what Richard Sherman has to do to himself to play professional football at the level he plays it. I have no idea what his state of mind must be like when he’s trying to match up to the violence of the moment. When Priest Holmes would finish games, he would almost never come out to his locker to talk. Sometimes, though, I would wait for him. An hour, an hour and a half. Sometimes two. The locker room would be empty. The equipment guys would ask me to turn out the lights when I left. Finally, he would limp out, and he would walk over to his locker, and he would slowly put on his clothes. And we would talk.

“I don’t see how those guys do it,” he would say of the players who had already spoken to the press. “If I had to talk right after the game, I’d say the craziest things you’ve ever heard.”

It's another season of finishing close for 49ers

SEATTLE (AP) For three straight seasons, Jim Harbaugh's San Francisco 49ers have finished oh-so close.

The NFC championship game after the 2011 season and again this year, and last season's 34-31 Super Bowl defeat to the Baltimore Ravens. And they have lost them all in a most frustrating fashion: Each time, with a great chance to win.

"I still think we're the best team," wide receiver Anquan Boldin said.

Quest for Six will have to wait at least one more year after the Niners lost a chance for a return trip to the Super Bowl in a 23-17 loss to archrival Seattle on Sunday.

For a franchise eager to rediscover the old dynasty, San Francisco will get a fresh start in 2014 at its new $1.2 billion Santa Clara stadium at team headquarters looking for another special season and to take the success one step further.

"It's great competition," Harbaugh said. "Not many people get to be in this arena. I'm proud of our guys for the fight they showed today and all season."

In a scene reminiscent of the way last season ended in the New Orleans Superdome in the Super Bowl, Colin Kaepernick threw a pass in the end zone intended for Michael Crabtree. This time, Richard Sherman deflected the ball right to Malcolm Smith for a game-sealing interception.

"The matchup was in my mind, one on one," Kaepernick said. "I feel like we should have won that game."

Yes, San Francisco (14-5) is left to head home for the offseason with a bitter taste again of what might have been, even with the daunting task for teams that reached the Super Bowl the year before to get back to the NFL's big stage.

Harbaugh knows special seasons can be fleeting. All he has to do is turn to big brother, John, whose Ravens failed to even reach the playoffs 11 months after winning a championship.

Kaepernick and the Niners knew one or two turnovers could cost them a return trip to the Super Bowl.

That had been the case in their past two visits to Seattle, so taking care of the ball became a top priority for San Francisco to beat the Seahawks on their home field.

Kaepernick went 14 for 24 for 153 yards with two sacks and two interceptions, and the 49ers committed three fourth-quarter turnovers - all by Kaepernick - that made the difference through the deafening noise of CenturyLink Field.

"I told him to keep his head up. He has no reason to drop his head, he played his butt off this entire season," Boldin said. "He made play after play."

These 49ers endured a daunting schedule and a pair of two-game losing streaks. They played without top 2012 wide receiver Crabtree for the first 11 games as he recovered from a torn right Achilles tendon and May surgery. San Francisco moved on in the postseason with tough road wins at Green Bay and Carolina.

"We played great as a team collectively," tight end Vernon Davis said. "If I look back on this season, I get excited because of where we came from and some of the things we were able to do as a team."

But there's something about Seattle lately for this group - three straight losses in which they have been outscored 94-33.

Even when the 49ers seemed to be the NFL's hottest team, riding an eight-game winning streak as they hit the road once more for one of the league's toughest venues.

"You can't point fingers," right tackle Anthony Davis said. "We came out here as a team, we win as a team, and we just lost as a team."

It hurt even more to see two key players from either side of the ball go down with serious injuries - All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman with a likely torn left knee ligament, and left guard Mike Iupati with a left ankle that is believed to be broken.

"We had a shot," punter Andy Lee said. "That's what we wanted. It was a good year with these guys. Hopefully we can get back to work and come back all fine next year."

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

Manning's Broncos to face Seahawks in Super Bowl

Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos will face the best defense they've met all season when they play Richard Sherman's Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl.

It will be a matchup between the NFL's No. 1 offense, led by Manning, against the NFL's No. 1 "D," led by Sherman, when the AFC's Broncos (15-3) take on the NFC's Seahawks (15-3) on Feb. 2 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

No upstarts here: Providing quite a cap to the season, this marks only the second time in the last 20 Super Bowls with the No. 1 seeds from both conferences.

The Broncos will be trying to win their third Super Bowl title, after 1998 and 1999. The Seahawks are eyeing their first championship.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

Davis, Feely, Tillman finalists for Payton Award

NEW YORK (AP) Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis, Arizona kicker Jay Feely and Chicago cornerback Charles Tillman have been selected as finalists for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.

The award, named in honor of the late Hall of Fame running back, recognizes a player's community service and performance on the field. The winner, who'll receive a $20,000 donation in his name to his favorite charity, will be announced during the NFL Honors show on Feb. 1, the night before the Super Bowl.

Davis, Feely and Tillman were chosen from among the 32 team nominees for the award, and will receive a $5,000 donation in their name.

The seven-person selection panel includes NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and 2012 winner Jason Witten of the Dallas Cowboys.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

Sharapova out in another early upset in Australia

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Third-seeded Maria Sharapova has been eliminated in the fourth round of the Australian Open, losing 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 to Dominika Cibulkova in the second major upset in 24 hours on Rod Laver Arena.

Sharapova struggled with her serve Monday, hitting seven double-faults in the third set, and needed an off-court medical time out after the second set for what appeared to be a lower back problem.

The four-time major winner was two tournaments into a comeback from a prolonged layoff with a right shoulder injury.

Top-ranked Serena Williams was knocked out in the fourth round on Sunday in a three-set loss to 14th-seeded Ana Ivanovic.

Kane scores in SO as Blackhawks top Bruins 3-2

CHICAGO (AP) Patrick Kane scored in a shootout to lift the Chicago Blackhawks to a 3-2 victory over the Boston Bruins on Sunday in a rematch of last season's Stanley Cup finals.

Jonathan Toews beat Tuukka Rask on the stick side to give the Blackhawks the lead in the tiebreaker, but Brad Marchand's quick wrist shot got by Corey Crawford, tying it up for the Bruins.

Kane, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy last year as playoff MVP, then skated toward the net, slowed up for a second and sent a shot past Rask on the stick side to give Chicago the win. The Blackhawks had lost their past seven games that had gone past regulation.

Marian Hossa and Brandon Bollig scored in regulation for Chicago, which beat Boston in six games to win the title last June.

Eto'o scores hat trick as Chelsea beat Manchester United 3-1

LONDON - Samuel Eto'o seized on slack defending to score his first Chelsea hat trick in a 3-1 victory over Manchester United on Sunday that provided further evidence of the Premier League champions' struggles under David Moyes.

It was United's seventh league loss, leaving them not only 14 points behind leader Arsenal but six points from the fourth Champions League spot.

For Jose Mourinho, it was his 100th Premier League win and it kept Chelsea within two points of the summit.

Chelsea took control of the game against the run of play at Stamford Bridge after a shot from Eto'o deflected off Michael Carrick into the net in the 17th minute.

After Danny Welbeck squandered a chance to equalize, Eto'o was left unmarked to tap in Chelsea's second on the stroke of halftime.

The Cameroon striker scrambled in his third in the 49th after goalkeeper David de Gea parried Gary Cahill's free header.

"I'm very happy," Eto'o, who joined from Anzhi Makhachkala in the summer transfer window, said in French. "My career wouldn't have been as beautiful if I hadn't gone to Chelsea."

Although Javier Hernandez pulled one back from close range in the 78th to revitalize United, it came too late to prevent United slumping to its fourth loss in five games in all competitions at the start of 2014.

To add to United's troubles, Moyes faces three matches without Nemanja Vidic after his captain was sent off in stoppage time for lunging at Eden Hazard in an undisciplined end.

In the uneasy transition since Moyes succeeded Alex Ferguson after the team won its 20th English title in May, even staying in the top-four elite could be beyond United, which is already out of the FA Cup.

The second-tier League Cup has taken on greater importance for United, with a 2-1 deficit to overturn against Sunderland in the second leg of their semifinal on Wednesday.

United's start in west London had belied its lowly league position - by their standards - in seventh.

Shaper and more determined, United pressed with conviction. And Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech was called on after two minutes to deny Ashley Young after a smart one-two by the winger with Danny Welbeck.

So confident was the visiting support that they taunted Mourinho: "You wanted this job."

Mourinho appeared to spend the start of 2013 trying to audition for a United job that only became vacant in May when Ferguson retired and hand-picked Moyes to replace him.

But he ended up back at Chelsea in June rather than inheriting a United side in need of considerable strengthening.

The United defense was sliced through with ease for the opener.

Eto'o cut in from the right, swept past Phil Jones and unleashed a shot that took a heavy deflection off Carrick's boot before looping over De Gea into the net.

United squandered a chance to level in the 38th. Adnan Januzaj's cross reached Welbeck in a central position but the striker couldn't produce a clean shot.

Oscar then tried to double the lead with a bicycle kick that flew over from right in front of goal, and instead Chelsea's second came from the boot of Eto'o again.

Welbeck only half cleared, Ramires seized possession and fed the ball to Hazard on the right flank. The winger then squared to the unmarked Eto'o to sweep a shot into the net as halftime loomed.

United had little time to settle after the break before its defense was breached again and Eto'o celebrated his first treble in English football.

Cahill headed in from Willian's corner and De Gea only briefly blocked the ball before it went back out for Eto'o, who got ahead of Antonio Valencia to score.

United pulled one back when Jones' scuffed shot was stabbed into the net by Hernandez, but never came closer to a comeback.

Record 98 underclassmen eligible for NFL draft

NEW YORK (AP) A record 98 underclassmen, including Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney, have made themselves eligible for the NFL draft in May.

The league released the list of early entrants Sunday, and says the number has risen six straight seasons. The deadline for underclassmen to apply was Jan. 15.

Last year, 73 underclassmen entered the draft. The year before it was 65 and in 2011 it was 56.

Also, four players who graduated and still have eligibility left are joining the draft class. Most notable among those is Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

Among the early entrants expected to be selected near the top of the draft are Manziel, the Texas A&M quarterback, Clowney, the defensive end from South Carolina and Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins.

The draft is May 8-10 in New York.

Sidney Crosby to captain Canada at Sochi Olympics

OTTAWA, Ontario (AP) Sidney Crosby will captain the Canadian hockey team at the Olympics.

After the Pittsburgh Penguins star scored the gold-medal-winning overtime goal against the United States in Vancouver four years ago, he's the natural choice in Sochi. Along with leading the NHL in scoring, the 26-year-old center is the face of the league and hockey in Canada.

The Chicago Blackhawks' Jonathan Toews and the Nashville Predators' Shea Weber will be alternate captains, Hockey Canada announced Sunday.

"Sidney, Jonathan and Shea have been leaders on the international stage in the past, as well as with their NHL teams," coach Mike Babcock said in a statement. "These three players will be at the forefront of our efforts in Sochi, but we are confident we have 25 players on our roster that will lead in their own way and allow our team to be successful."

Crosby was made the youngest captain in NHL history when he got the "C" for the Penguins 6 1/2 years ago. In 2009, he raised the Stanley Cup as captain.

At the 2010 Olympics, Crosby was an alternate along with Chris Pronger and Jarome Iginla. Veteran defenseman Scott Niedermayer captained that team and said before his Hockey Hall of Fame induction in November that he had no doubt Crosby was ready to assume the role.

Russia has already picked Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings as captain. It's Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins for Slovakia and Tomas Plekanec of the Montreal Canadiens for the Czech Republic.

The United States has yet to announce its captain, though general manager David Poile singled out Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, Dustin Brown, Ryan Callahan and David Backes as leaders.

Larrazabal wins Abu Dhabi Championship

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Spain's Pablo Larrazabal shot a final round 67 to end a near three-year winless drought to capture the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship on Sunday.

Larrazabal, 30, won by a stroke with a 14-under par 274 on the National Course in the UAE capital.

Rory McIlroy (68), who had incurred a two-stroke penalty a day earlier, finished with a share of second place with Phil Micklelson (69) on 13-under.

"It means a lot to win my third victory on Tour and playing against who I played today," said Larrazabal.

"Of course, I play against myself but I knew who I also had behind me in Mickelson. I have just beaten two of the three most talented guys in my era, and in the last era, as well in Phil Mickelson and Rory.

Mickelson was left counting the cost of incurring a shot penalty after a double hit while playing from brush on the 13th hole of the National course.

The British Open champion, who was leading at the time, finished the hole with a triple-bogey seven.

"I was sitting at the presentation ceremony I said to myself: `Pablo? What are you doing here?' I've got Rory McIlroy on my left and I am shaking the hand of Phil Mickelson on my right. It's very special for me," added Larrazabal after collecting the trophy.

"But it's been a long journey and a lot of work since my last win in Munich, and only my team and my family know how hard I have worked for this victory with no holidays, and not too many days off this winter, just working hard to arrive here properly and in form to Abu Dhabi. So, yes happy days."

While Mickelson was returning home for his first PGA event of the New Year, at this coming week's Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, McIlroy is returning to nearby Dubai to continue working on his game.

It is the second occasion in three years he has let slip victory in Abu Dhabi because of a rules violation.

"It happens, it happens but it never crossed my mind I might double hit it," Mickelson said.

"I was just trying to dribble it out of the bush because I couldn't get the unplayable penalty lie to give me a shot without stroke and distance and I felt it was worth the risk. It not only cost a penalty shot, but it also stopped the ball from going to a spot where I could hit again.

"So after that I got refocused and got aggressive and made some birdies and gave myself a chance. If Pablo had not birdied the last hole to win, I would have gotten into a play-off, and so I give him a lot of credit for finishing the tournament off the right way," he added.

McIlroy had been penalized for illegally brushing sand off his line on the final day of the 2012 event before losing by a stroke to England's Robert Rock.

On Saturday, the double Major winner was slapped with a two-shot penalty after being reported by the caddy of another player in not taking `full relief' from a spectator cross walk.

"I can't describe how frustrating it is and feeling like I should be standing here at 15-under par for the tournament and winning by one," McIlroy said.

"It is a very positive start to the season so I'm not to let one little negative ruin that. It was not to I finished one behind on the 18th that it started he o dawn on me if what happened yesterday had not happened, I would have won.

"But Pablo played well, and I can't take anything away from him. When he needed to, he hit the shots, and the two shots he hit into 18 were straight out of the drawer, so fair play to him.

"It's good to see. He's a good guy, one of my closer friends out here and good to see him get the win."

Larrazabal moved into seventh place in the Race to Dubai and to 12th on the European Ryder Cup Team points table.

As well, the current World No. 103 ranked player should move inside the top-64 on the rankings when they are adjusted Monday and that will guarantee the Spaniard a first-ever place in next month's Accenture Match-Play Championship in Arizona.

Canucks coach Tortorella, Flames have altercation

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) The Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames engaged in a wild first-period brawl Saturday night which later carried over to Canucks coach John Tortorella being involved in an alternation in the hallway outside of the Flames' dressing room.

The opening minutes of the NHL game, which the Canucks won 3-2 in a shootout, was like a scene from the movie "Slap Shot."

It brought back memories of when teams such as the Broad Street Bullies and Big Bad Boston Bruins hit the ice.

"I don't think anybody expected that," said Flames defenseman Chris Butler, one of eight players ejected from the game.

"It's been a while since something like that happened, five guys pairing off."

The Flames raised a red flag by putting their fourth line on the ice to start the game. The Canucks countered with their tough guys.

Game on.

Just 2 seconds had ticked off the clock when all five skaters from each team taking the opening faceoff dropped their gloves and began throwing punches.

Calgary enforcer Brian McGrattan was left bloodied in a fight with Vancouver tough guy Tom Sestito. After the fight Sestito patted McGrattan on the back of the head.

Minor league call-up Kellan Lain's first game as a Canuck was brief. He was tossed for fighting with Calgary's Kevin Westgarth, who has no points in 21 games for the Flames.

Also receiving game misconducts were Vancouver's Dale Weise plus defensemen Kevin Bieksa and Jason Garrison. For Calgary, it was Westgarth, Blair Jones, Ladislav Smid and Chris Butler.

"They started their goon squad over there," said Sestito, who leads the NHL with 167 penalty minutes in 47 games. "I just don't think we're going to be backing down from guys."

Sestito and McGrattan remained in the game.

In the aftermath of the brawl Tortorella could be seen yelling at the Flames bench.

Later in the period, Calgary's Mark Giordano punched Vancouver's Alex Burrows in the face. Burrows was wearing a facemask to protect a broken jaw. It was his first game since Dec. 1.

The bad blood wasn't confined to the ice. At the end of the first period CBC, which televised the game, captured Tortorella attempting to go into the Flames locker room at Rogers Arena. McGrattan pushed him away.

Flames goaltender coach Clint Malarchuk came out of the Flames dressing room after Tortorella and McGrattan were separated. Malarchuk followed Tortorella, but was restrained by several members of Calgary's staff and McGrattan.

Much of the altercation appeared off camera, but another camera showed Vancouver defenseman Chris Tanev pulling Burrows back toward the Canucks dressing room.

Tortorella refused to comment on the incident, but made no apologizes for the lineup he started.

"I know the other guy across the bench," he said. "It's easy for people to say `well put the Sedins out there and it's deflated.' I can't put our players at risk like that.

"With the lineup that he had, I'm not going to put those types of players at risk and that's what ensued. I'm not proud of it. I've apologized to every one of the players involved in it. I don't feel great about it at all."

Flames coach Bob Hartley was left shaking his head over Tortorella charging his team's dressing room.

"I just don't understand," he said. "I got out of there. I don't need to get suspended or fined.

"There is nothing to be settled there. I just don't understand what was going on."

Hartley also defended his starting lineup.

"Those guys are playing well for us," he said. "They got a goal last game. We're not scoring many goals. We had zero intentions there.

"As far as I know they were the home team. They had the luxury to put whoever they wanted on the ice."

The teams combined for 188 penalty minutes in the first period.

Djokovic cruises through to Australian Open quarterfinals

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Novak Djokovic ensured there wouldn't be consecutive upset losses at Rod Laver Arena on Sunday when he beat Fabio Fognini 6-3, 6-0, 6-2 in a fourth-round match at the Australian Open.

Immediately following fellow Serbian Ana Ivanovic's win over top-seeded and five-time champion Serena Williams, Djokovic raced to a 4-1 lead in the first set in just 19 minutes and won in 1 hour, 33 minutes to advance to the quarterfinals of his 19th consecutive Grand Slam.

It was also Djokovic's 28th consecutive win dating back to his loss to Rafael Nadal in last September's U.S. Open final.

Djokovic, who has captured six Grand Slam singles titles, next plays the winner of the match between Stanislas Wawrinka and Tommy Robredo later Sunday.

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