My heart has not fully healed yet, but, I don’t think the NFL really cares about that because the Super Bowl game between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens in New Orleans is still scheduled for this weekend. The very sight of the Super Bowl trophy will once again remind me of the crown that New England Patriots fans like me were supposed to have planted firmly on our heads at the end of this season. If it sounds like I am bitter, it’s because I am. But I still have a stake in this Super Bowl even though my favorite team did not make the cut. My credibility as a football pundit will be up for grabs once the kicker’s foot meets the football on Sunday evening. I made the foolish decision at the beginning of the playoffs to predict on paper the outcome of games. Therefore, I cannot erase the fact that my record this postseason with my picks is exactly at .500. On the bright side, Sunday offers a chance at redemption. A correct prediction and I am vindicated. Another incorrect one and my short career in sports journalism will take a significant hit. Not that any of you care, but my pride is on the line. Oh, and there is the fact that two brothers will be coaching on opposite sides of the field (this is the one and only mention of the “Harbaugh Bowl” in this article). With that in mind, let us embark on this one last journey.
A Look Back
You may be wondering what it is that we need to look back on considering that I already did that in my Championship Round Review last week. Well, there was the annual travesty known as the Pro Bowl this past Sunday. For those not familiar with the NFL, the Pro Bowl features fan voted teams from each conference. Essentially, it is the equivalent of the All-Star games in other sports.
Here’s the issue in football: taking the field is a risk in and of itself. Players are therefore not likely to exert a significant amount of energy and the result is a game which is played at half speed and half effort.
While last weekend’s Pro Bowl was nowhere near as bad as last year’s fiasco, there was much that was left to be desired. The score should tell you all you need to know about the game: 62-35 NFC. But, let us consider the entertainment factor. On both sides, there was long throw after long throw as the quarterback just aired it out without fear of losing. The result was some entertaining plays. Touchdowns, interceptions, fumbles, failed reverses, and interesting takes on onside kicks provided for some laughs. So, it might not have the greatest game from a pure football standpoint, but it was a nice break from games in which the stakes are so high.
I did not realize exactly how close this game could be until I looked at the stat breakdown between these two teams. In a matrix that I created using statistics I believed to be most important in determining the outcome of a game, the 49ers and Ravens were pretty much tied in the majority of the categories including points per game (around 25), turnover differential (9), and third down percentage (35% vs. 37% respectively).
This confirms something that we already knew. At the most basic level, the 49ers and Ravens are extremely similar. Both have potentially explosive offenses and stout defenses. However, on both offense and defense, both teams have shown lapses this season. For the Ravens, these lapses include games against the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans. The 49ers played poorly against the New York Giants and Seattle Seahawks. Both teams also have the potential to blowout opponents as evidenced by the Ravens’ wins over the Oakland Raiders and Giants and the 49ers’ wins over the Buffalo Bills and Chicago Bears.
So, trying to pick this game on a purely statistical basis would not be wise. But, just for fun, let us see the outcome anyway. From my matrix, the 49ers have the slight edge with their advantages being points (17 vs. 21.5) and red zone trips allowed per game (2.3 vs. 3.3). However, Baltimore has key advantages in both red zone scoring percentage (61% vs. 55%) and opponent’s red zone percentage (43% vs. 59%). Based on this, San Francisco should win a close game that will be decided by critical 3rd down stops.
If we step away from the stats and look at the teams individually, the picture changes slightly. The 49ers are a team that underwent a radical midseason change that sparked their offense and led to their run through the playoffs. While the team is still anchored by the defense, their offense has become far more potent with quarterback Colin Kaepernick. As we well know by now, his ability to beat opponents both on the ground and through the air has provided fits for opposing defenses. During the Championship game, the Atlanta Falcons managed to shut down Kaepernick for a couple quarters but couldn’t contain him in the second half. The Ravens’ defense will face a similar challenge against a quarterback who doesn’t seem to be intimidated by the spotlight of the playoffs.
Despite all the fanfare surrounding Kaepernick, the foundation of their offense continues to be running back Frank Gore. Gore had another productive season with over 1200 rushing yards during the regular season. He is a small but strong runner who can break tackles and is deadly in the open field. While not as much of a threat in the passing game, he must be accounted for on every play. The 49ers will try to make sure the game goes through Gore in the early stages to avoid making any critical mistakes.
The receiving corps of the 49ers is surprisingly good for a team that doesn’t feature a pass first offense. Their top receiver, Michael Crabtree, came alive when Kaepernick took over at quarterback. Randy Moss continues to be reasonably productive despite his advanced age and will be a vertical threat on Sunday. Tight end Vernon Davis had a quiet season but temporarily silenced critics with a 5 catch 106 receiving yards day against the Falcons in the Championship Round.
The 49ers’ defense is still a juggernaut. Despite a couple of suspect games this season, they have remained fairly dominant throughout the year. They allowed the second smallest number of points during the regular season and teams found it tough to run and pass on them. The reason for this is the vast array of playmakers they have present on defense. In every level, there are Pro Bowl quality players. On the defensive line, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Ray McDonald, and Ricky Jean Francois provide an excellent combination of pass rushers and run stoppers. Linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis play equally well when crashing the line of scrimmage and when dropping back in coverage. The secondary is full of talented cornerbacks and safeties, anchored by safety Donte Whitner. The point is that when this unit is clicking, opposing offenses are facing an impenetrable wall.
On the other side we have the always entertaining Baltimore Ravens. They went from the team of lethargy to the team of destiny in the span of about two weeks. What changed? Linebacker Ray Lewis announced that he was retiring at the end of the season. Suddenly, the defense which, had been ravaged by injuries all year, started playing with passion and tenacity. The offense became gutsier and in the process unlocked the secret behind using the personnel that the Ravens have on offense effectively. They were able to beat a hot shot rookie and two future Hall of Famers on the road.
But what has made them dangerous recently? On offense, they have finally given quarterback Joe Flacco full reign over his play calling and decision making. In previous years, many people, including me, didn’t think that he had the talent to orchestrate an efficient offense. However, despite the growing pains we saw in the middle and end of the year, he has proven to be incredibly clutch in the playoffs. Even a doubter like me has to admit that his recent play has vindicated his talent and ability.
Flacco excels when given time to find his incredibly talented group of receivers. One of them, second year player Torrey Smith, has added a vertical dimension to Flacco’s arsenal with his unparalleled speed. Anquan Boldin is a strong presence in the intermediate and short game who dominates the middle of the field. Jacoby Jones is another deep threat who can help take some attention away from the two aforementioned stalwarts. Tight end Dennis Pitta is still a huge threat in the middle of the field and will be a factor in the red zone and in short-down situations.
Amid all the hoopla surrounding the explosive passing game, running back Ray Rice’s production has dipped. In part, this has been by design. The Ravens have shifted their focus on offense towards the passing game. As a result, Rice’s carries and yards have regressed slightly this year. However, his presence must not be overlooked. He is still a threat both on the ground and out of the backfield in the passing game. He offers Flacco a dump-off option and can create big plays off short throws. Nobody can forget his 4th and 29 miracle play against the San Diego Chargers earlier this year. In case you forgot, here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=er-VDKsZDho.
Finally, there is the Ravens’ defense. It has been both a liability and a strength this year. During their tumultuous stretch, the defense was incapable of stopping decent offenses. Many thought that the offense would have to carry the team which was a sharp departure from previous years when the defense anchored the team. However, much of their struggles can be attributed to injuries. They didn’t have Ray Lewis or Terrell Suggs for a good bit of the season and lost cornerback Lardarius Webb. Now that they have recovered Suggs and Lewis, their defense seems to have found its groove. Exhibit A: They shut down the Patriots’ offense during the Championship game.
So on paper and on the basis of raw talent it seems as though the 49ers should win. But it’s the way that the teams match-up on the field that will determine the outcome of the game. For example, in the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots, we saw a prime example of a team that the Ravens’ defense matches up well against although talent-wise they were over-matched. The Ravens are great against teams that play with traditional quarterbacks that don’t have a deep threat at their disposal. The 49ers don’t have much of a deep threat, although Moss has shown flashes of his former speed this year. What they do have is an X-factor in Kaepernick. We don’t know how the Ravens will fare against Kaepernick because the only game they played against running quarterback this year was a loss to the Washington Redskins. Also, the Redskins are nowhere near as talented a team as the 49ers are. Regardless, I believe that they will do a good job containing Kaepernick because their defense is stocked with experienced players who have the discipline it takes to decipher the read-option.
Irrespective of Kaepernick’s performance, the Ravens’ offensive production will ultimately decide this game. If Flacco can repeat the performances he had against the Patriots and Broncos, chances are that they will win. However, if he reverts to the inconsistent Flacco we have seen at times this year, the Ravens have no chance. Period. The rest of the team is not good enough to lift them over the hump. There are reasons to believe that the Ravens’ offense won’t have the same success they have had in recent weeks. First of all, the 49ers’ secondary is stocked with playmakers. They should be able to match up well against the Ravens’ receivers and disrupt any rhythm that Flacco tries to establish. Chances are that Flacco will be forced to throw a significant amount in this game because the 49ers’ run defense is one of the best in the league.
As I said, the Ravens are in the driver’s seat when it comes to this game. They have the ability to put the burden on the 49ers early in this game with a quick start. There is nothing worse for the 49ers and Kaepernick than to be down early in the Super Bowl. Then there is also the question of how Kaepernick, who is essentially a rookie, will be affected by the moment. Will he be overwhelmed? I don’t think so and I don’t think the Ravens will be able to do enough offensively in this game. It’s going to be another great Super Bowl that comes down to the wire and we will see the coronation of this decade’s Tom Brady. Prediction: 49ers 20 Ravens 17.
Enjoy this last bit of football action because it isn’t coming back for seven months. If you happen to be on campus during the game, please come to 1505 for the Super Bowl party as there will be copious amounts of food. Thank you to those who have read my articles this season because it has been a great year!