We have arrived. The next time the human race will eat more pizza, buffalo wings and other healthy treats will be next year’s Super Bowl. And at some point after some 12 hours of boring pre-game stories (as the great Lewis Black said, there isn’t enough liquor in the universe), rehashing of the game’s most important storylines (which will force some serious narrative dexterity out of the poor people forced to keep the bevy of couch potatoes who will watch them from beginning to end), we should get to see the 49ers play the Ravens tonight.
People have been asking me whether I’m surprised to see these two teams here. As far as San Francisco is concerned, not at all. The Niners are the NFL team with the smallest quantity of flaws in their game. In other words, they are, on coaching and playing talent, the NFL’s best team. An incredibly shrew and gutsy quarterback switch during the regular season proved to be the last upgrade the team needed, and they have needed it, as Colin Kaepernick now makes them a potent offence.
Do the 49ers beat a Falcons team that came out of the locker room in overdrive mode with Alex Smith playing QB? I have serious doubts. How close a game would it have been with the Packers? The Niners’ flaw with Alex Smith starting at QB was that they were one of those defensive-minded squads who won with their running game and their defence while the quarterback’s job was to make sure he didn’t lose it. The drawback of this kind of mentality is that if you’re down 17, it’s probably over because your quarterback can’t actually win the game for you and your gameplan is always predicated on him not having to. With Kaepernick at the controls, this cannot be said about the 49ers anymore.
Kaepernick may very well have the ugliest throwing motion I’ve even seen on a quarterback (which would be something, since the list also includes Vince Young), but he’s fairly accurate and has tremendous zip on his passes. And, of course, his running ability sets him apart, but that much he showed at Nevada. What’s been surprising to me and to a lot of people is how well he’s thrown the ball this season. If the Ravens allow him to play like he did against the Packers, I’m sorry, people, but this Super Bowl won’t be a contest. Kap has made what was already the NFL’s best team into an even better one.
Seeing the Ravens crawl their way to the Super Bowl is a bit more of a surprise, but not much, because this kind of a Cinderella story team has gotten to the Super Bowl pretty much every year since the Patriots played the Eagles in 2005 (and before you bring up the Saints vs the Colts three years ago, the Colts, with that consistently pitiful defence, were always a Cinderella story to me). As we noted earlier, the Ravens have overcome a lot to get here. They have had to fight through a significant rash of injuries, especially on defence. What makes their story interesting, though, is that as a team which makes the playoffs with admirable regularity, they’ve failed to get to the Super Bowl while fielding better teams than their current edition. This goes to show that getting to the Super Bowl is like the success of a first-round quarterback; it’s practically all circumstance. If John Fox and co. don’t retreat into criminally conservative territory, if Rahim Moore doesn’t get worse body positioning and mistime his jump worse than the kid who failed to make the high school team, Ray Lewis is at home right now, wondering whether or not to go Brett Favre on us. And who knows what would have happened had Wes Welker not dropped the football as if it was Plutonium 345906 on two key Patriots drives two weeks ago? If the Pats score on those drives, the game’s a nail-biter. But the Ravens did get these breaks and so we are indeed here trying to rate their chances against a very, very strong San Fran team.
On paper, there is no doubt the 49ers are heavily favoured. Overall, they have the better team and, as reported by Grantland’s Bill Barnwell, they are 11-1-1 under Jim Harbaugh when they have more than eight days of preparation. That doesn’t bode well for a diminished Ravens defence, especially given Harbaugh’s and offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s creativity with the running game. Their offensive line has been dominant and even if the Ravens somehow manage to stop the Niners’ ground game, there are still lots of questions for Baltimore to answer if they’re going to win the game, questions such as…
Question 1: How exactly will they cover Vernon Davis?
The Ravens don’t have a linebacker who can do it on his own, and Davis is bound to overpower just about any safety. Bernard Pollard? Big enough, perhaps, but not the finest cover guy at safety and certainly not fast enough to hang with Mr. 4.37 40. (Besides, odds are Pollard represents a greater threat to Colin Kaepernick’s knees than to Davis’ downfield ability.) Bracket cover Davis, you say? Fine. But that means Harbaugh and Roman can probably scheme their way into creating a 1-vs-1 situation with Randy Moss. Sure, he’s 37 or whatever, but he’s shown he’s still a downfield threat. And that’s not taking into account the space you’ll leave Michael Crabtree for all the underneath shtick the Niners will throw at you. And that’s also not taking into account the fact that the Niners line up Davis everywhere: tight end, fullback, H-Back, slotback. Good luck keying in on him. If John Harbaugh finds a way to blanket Vernon Davis without seriously endangering the guys who have to cover the Niners’ other weapons, we’ll know why he’s coaching the Ravens and I’m not.
Question 2: How do they avoid getting carved by the option game?
My guess is that the mentality (especially after another glance at the Packers game) will be “anything not to let Kaepernick run around with the ball”. That means using the replace-exchange scheme to force Kap to hand the ball off pretty much every time. Sounds great, except… you still have to defend Frank Gore and have sacrificed one man who’s off playing Kap. Haloti Ngata, Mount Cody and Ma’eke Kemoeatu have to play the game of their lives to clog the line of scrimmage and allow Ray Lewis and co. to minimize his yardage. Ngata is a stud, but he hasn’t been playing at 100% for a while now and Cody and Kemoeatu are bigger than they are good. Ngata most likely will force double teams, but one of the other two must as well. No mean task given their lack of agility. If they cannot and Ravens’ LBs have to take on blocks. Gore just might rush for 150 yards. And that’s before any kind of passing is involved.
Question 3: Even if they do a job on all those passing options, how do they stop Kaepernick from running the ball then?
If you look at the game vs the Pats, you can easily see that if it wasn’t for Tom Brady’s minimal mobility forcing the Pats to complete precision passes on 3rd and 2, there was tons of daylight for the quarterback to run. You may conclude the Ravens stuck to their men in coverage because they weren’t afraid of Brady running the ball. Yet, the question becomes, how long will they stick to their men when Kapernick starts running all over the field when his receivers are covered? And how many will he hit after the DB or the linebacker has come out of coverage to stop him after they’re sick of allowing him 30-yard runs?
By no means, however, is this game a done deal. There are no done deals at the Super Bowl, and Cinderella stories often triumph against overwhelming odds. See Giants against the Pats, twice. (Yes, Pats fans, it gives me pleasure to rub it in.)
The Ravens do have assets that can cause the 49ers headaches. And there are questions the 49ers must answer if they don’t want to share the same fate as the Broncos or the Patriots.
Question 1: Will the Niners feel like covering an intermediate zone this time?
They didn’t do it the entire game against Atlanta after Julio Jones deep fried them a couple of times. Anything between 10 and 20 yards was open all day and the Falcons exploited it for big yardage. Why was that? Because of the Roddy White-Julio Jones duo? Probably. But while the Ravens’ starting receiver duo might not be quite as potent as that of the Falcons, not covering intermediate zones isn’t an option when the opposing tight ends are Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, two guys who can dissect the Niners’ defence if San Fran once again allows itself to be stretched vertically. Moreover, Anquan Boldin can be murder in this area of the field as well. That and the fact that trying to tackle Boldin is about as much fan as trying to tackle a Jeep.
The problem is that in Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, the Ravens have the manpower to threaten the 49ers in deep zones, which may very well in turn open up the aforementioned intermediate zones. And as vaunted as the Niners’ front seven is, you can throw against them if you get time. I can’t see why Joe Flacco wouldn’t have similar success to that of Matt Ryan against the Niners defence. The only this can be prevented is the answer to question 2…
Question 2: Where will the pass rush come from?
Since Justin Smith’s injury, Aldon Smith has not been the same player. While he was a dynamo all season, his pass rush has fallen and so has, in turn, the Niners’ sack production. The 3-4 defence relies on stunts to create favourable matchups, and Justin Smith took on a lot of blockers to leave Aldon in 1-vs-1 battles. Since Justin’s injury, Aldon has faced more attention and his production has suffered as a result.
The Pro Bowl break gives the Super Bowl finalists time to recuperate, and the Niners better pray Justin Smith is back to normal, or something close to it. If he does, it will be tougher to key on Aldon and the pass rush should improve as a result. For a guy who has taken tons of flak for being overweight, Bryant McKinnie has blocked out the sun as well as opposing pass rushers in recent weeks. If all he has to worry about is Aldon, McKinnie should do fine. And if he does, Joe Flacco figures to have a lot of time to throw, which doesn’t bode well for the 49ers’ somewhat overrated secondary.
Question 3: How do the intangibles not favour the Ravens?
Let me get this straight. In the past ten years, the Ravens have had about seven teams better than this one. Yet this is the team that gets to the big game? They win a game they never should have escaped against the Broncos, catch fire against the Pats and blow them out. The most inspirational defensive player of the past the 20 years and the heart and soul of the Ravens since they became the Ravens is retiring and since he made a most miraculous comeback from an injury that usually takes six months to recover from (yes, Bill Simmons, I’m suspicious too), he gets a chance to cap off his Hall of Fame career with a ring? That doesn’t scare you? And you’re facing Joe Flacco, the guy who outplayed two of the three best quarterbacks in the game in successive weeks, and that doesn’t scare you?
Let’s face it, while the Ravens are overmatched on paper, they wouldn’t be the first team in this position to pull off an upset in the Super Bowl. But I come back to the 49ers overall strength and the brilliance of Jim Harbaugh and his staff’s ability to create potent game plans to exploit the opponent’s weaknesses and even use some of their strengths against them (see how they neutralized Ndamokung Suh when they played the Lions). I don’t think the Ravens have the manpower on defence to stop Colin Kaepernick and co. The Niners are praying to whatever god they believe in they don’t have to rely on David Akers to win them the game, but I really don’t think it will come down to that. The Ravens’ front seven will play well, but not well enough, so Frank Gore will run for his share of yards, opening up massive spaces for the play-action passing game. And while they won’t shut down the Ravens, they’ll score enough to win the game comfortably.
Final score: 49ers: 34 – Ravens: 20
So there, you have it. San Fran will pick up its first trophy since 1994 and Jim Harbaugh will take over Bill Belichick’s status as the top coach in the game. And Ray Lewis sadly won’t get a second ring before he retires. That is, if he retires.