The Harbaugh brothers and 90 of their favorite players will entertain America and the world Sunday night as the Ravens and 49ers battle for the NFL’s 2012 crown. Finally, Super Bowl XLVII is here. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Can we all agree the hoopla surrounding the Super Bowl is annoying and excessive for everyone but fans of the two teams competing? I should be getting critical basketball coverage this time of year. Instead, I’m tortured with stories about deer antlers, why Randy Moss thinks he’s the greatest, where Alex Smith ends up next year, and who said what about something stupid. I’ve never fast-forwarded through so many PTI segments in my life. At this point, I’m excited for the game just so all the coverage goes away. The NFL season peaks during the conference championships. After that, it becomes a circus. But I’m not here to talk about a circus. Let’s get to the game and the three biggest factors that will determine who hoists the Vince Lombardi trophy Sunday night.
Last Week: 1 – 1 – 0
Playoffs: 7 – 3 – 0
Sunday, February 3 (6:30PM ET)
Two months ago we wondered if Joe Flacco was the long-term solution for the Ravens under center. Now, Flacco wants “Brees money” and almost no one bats an eye at the request. This is what happens in the NFL when you succeed in the postseason. (Also, this is what happens when Rahim Moore plays a deep ball like a blind seven-year-old. Whatever Flacco gets, he should cut Moore a piece of that pie. Without Moore, Flacco would’ve been home three weeks ago, and the only time his name and “Brees” would’ve be mentioned in the same conversation is when someone asked him what the weather was like at his favorite beach resort.)
Ok, so that’s probably a little harsh, but it’s somewhat true. We call Eli Manning a big game quarterback because he took down Tom Brady twice. But if Kyle Williams doesn’t fumble two punts or if the 49ers secondary doesn’t drop four interceptions in last year’s NFC Championship game, Eli is just another quarterback with a Super Bowl ring courtesy of his defense. And even that 2007 title was the result of a dropped Asante Samuel interception and the flukiest catch you’ll ever see. The smallest things in the NFL playoffs swing Super Bowls; careers; legacies.
I think Joe Flacco’s legacy is cemented Sunday. Though he’s simply an above average regular season quarterback, he’s a straight up baller when the temperature drops and the intensity heats up. In his last seven playoff starts (dating back to the 2010 postseason), guess how many times Flacco’s turnovers surpassed his touchdowns? Once. In that same time, do you know how many times his QB Rating dropped below 95? Again, only once. Tom Brady’s last seven playoff starts are riddled with Mark Sanchez numbers, including four games with a QB rating below 90, and three of those four below 65. Peyton Manning’s disappointing playoff numbers are similar, only with greater frequency. Joe Flacco is the NFL’s king of clutch right now.
Does that mean Colin Kaepernick is a choke artist? Absolutely not. Kaepernick has proven quite the opposite in his brief postseason career. He was Superman against the Packers and a pocket-passing assassin in Atlanta a week later. He’s done everything and not too much all at the same time. I couldn’t have been more impressed with Kaepernick’s postseason debut. But the Super Bowl is a new stage, and though the Super Bowl stage is also unchartered territory for Flacco, he’s been on the cusp multiple times. More importantly, he knows the pain of losing deep in the postseason. Kaepernick only knows that pain from the bench. I’m rolling with Joe Money.
A few weeks ago I picked the Green Bay Packers to knock off the 49ers because I thought San Francisco’s secondary was overrated. Sadly, Colin Kaepernick had other ideas and trampled the Packers right out of the postseason. Nonetheless, I was right; San Fran’s secondary isn’t very good. Matt Ryan and the Falcons had their way in the passing game. Two clumsy mistakes by Ryan likely cost Atlanta the game and the NFC title. Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin aren’t Roddy White and Julio Jones, but Flacco should find plenty of opportunities to get the ball downfield in big chunks. The key for the Ravens is to avoid large deficits. The Packers got in trouble when they fell behind big in the 3rd quarter. Once the 49ers front seven gets a whiff of desperation, it’s over. Keeping a balanced attack and working the middle of the field will be critical for the Ravens. San Francisco’s safeties are overmatched in pass coverage. Just ask Julio Jones and Zach Miller.
Let’s also not forget San Francisco’s defense has come up surprisingly small in the biggest games of the season. Against New England and Seattle in consecutive weeks with a playoff bye on the line, the 49ers surrendered 34 and 42 points, respectively. The 49ers thrashing of the Packers had everything to do with Colin Kaepernick and little to do with the defense. Atlanta steamrolled the 49er defense in the 1st half of the NFC Championship game and the aforementioned clumsy turnovers by Matt Ryan were San Francisco’s only defensive highlights. The 49er defense is a talented group of good and even some great players, but that doesn’t make them a great defense.
Conversely, the Ravens defense lacks the all-pro talent and athleticism of the 49ers but makes up for it with experience. Baltimore’s defense has been the best and most consistent defense in the postseason. Don’t be fooled by the 35 points hung on them in Denver. Peyton Manning and the Broncos had only four drives of 45 yards or more, and only one of Denver’s last seven drives went for more than 31 yards.
Ray Lewis has been here before. His experience and leadership oozes throughout the defense. When Baltimore has needed a stop in the playoffs, the defense has gotten it. They held Tom Brady and the Patriots at bay in the 1st half and then shut them out completely in the 2nd. A defense as experienced as Baltimore’s won’t fall victim to a gimmick offense, so Colin Kaepernick will again have to win the game with his arm and not his feet. Atlanta’s defense was soft. Find me a defense as tough and hungry as Baltimore’s. You can’t. Their regular season stats weren’t gaudy like San Francisco’s. In fact, Baltimore’s defense was an afterthought for most of the season, but they’ll be the best defense on the field Sunday, just like they’ve been the entire postseason.
I mean, come on. The Baltimore Ravens have that championship aura to them right now. Ray Lewis is retiring. Ed Reed will likely be gone next year. It’s the end of the greatest era in Ravens history. Rahim Moore essentially dropped a fly ball so Baltimore could be here. On top of that, Joe Flacco took out Peyton Manning and Tom Brady on the road in consecutive weeks to get here. Only a Wildcard victory over Ben Roethlisberger could’ve made this story more perfect for Flacco’s rise to prominence.
And you know what, I want the Ravens to win. John Harbaugh was brought up through the ranks by Andy Reid. Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are perhaps the two greatest defensive players of this generation. While San Francisco’s Randy Moss whines about more opportunities and claims he’s the greatest ever, Anquan Boldin lines up and catches the football regardless of where it goes and how many times its throw his way. I don’t want to live in a world where Randy Moss has a Super Bowl ring. I’d rather him rot away with Terrell Owens in the “great receivers with no rings because they’re a-holes,” club.
Don’t get me wrong, the 49ers are a great team. Jim Harbaugh is a fantastic coach. And Colin Kaepernick is an electrifying player. But there’s no history with this 49ers team. The Ravens have continually fallen short of the Super Bowl with a cast more talented than the one that won Baltimore its first Super Bowl over a decade ago. The 49ers haven’t battled through injuries like the Ravens. The 49ers aren’t rallying around a living NFL legend on his way out the door. The 49ers’ day will likely come, but it won’t be Sunday. The Ravens are 2012’s version of the 2011 Giants, 2010 Packers, and 2007 Giants. Once those wheels of destiny are set in motion, there’s simply nothing stopping them. Or, as Ray Lewis would say, “no weapon fashioned.” Amen, Ray. Amen. RAVENS If I were Charles Barkley; Ravens +3.5
Last Week: 1 – 1 – 0
Playoffs: 7 – 3 – 0