Friday, February 1, 2013

The Hail Mary - Super Bowl XLVII

Super Bowl XLVII: #4 Baltimore Ravens (13-6) vs. #2 San Francisco 49ers (13-4-1) in New Orleans, Louisiana, San Francisco favored by 3 1/2

The Super Bowl brings in millions of casual fans, that will probably be watching their first football game of the season. For people not interested in matchups, or which team has the better offense or defense, there is still plenty to become invested in with this game. You have Ravens LB Ray Lewis, playing in the last game of his career, trying to go out a champion, and win a lifetime supply of deer antler spray. For the 49ers, you have QB Colin Kaepernick, making just his 10th career start, playing for a championship. You will also probably see plenty of shots of former starter, Alex Smith, looking forlorn on the sideline, as the team excels without him. But most of all, you have the Harbowl. Brothers Jim and John, coach of the 49ers and Ravens respectively, facing off in the biggest game either has coached in their lives. Then you have the stories that have led up to this game during the week. Deer antler spray and whether or not Lewis took a banned substance. 49ers CB Chris Culliver's homophobic remarks, that put the the 49ers into crisis control mode. These stories all add layers of interest to the game, but they mean nothing once the game starts. Football, like any other sport, comes down to matchups.

On paper, the Ravens are a team that doesn't really stand out. In the regular season, they ranked in the teens in both passing and rushing offense. Their defense, long a stalwart of the franchise, was beset by injuries and old age and ranked just 17th against the pass and 20th against the run. This all seemed to catch up with them late in the season, when they lost four of their final five games and backed into the playoffs. But after a sloppy Wild Card win at home against Indianapolis, a flip seemed to switch and the Ravens became the best team in the AFC. They took out #2 seed Denver quarterbacked by Peyton Manning, and #1 seed New England quarterbacked by Tom Brady on the road. Against Denver, their defense allowed just 21 points, and forced Manning into an interception that ended up costing Denver the game. Against the Patriots, the Ravens dominated New England in the second half, and once again the defense was there to make stops and force turnovers. Having Terrell Suggs, Lewis, Haloti Ngata healthy, to play alongside Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard is the biggest reason we have seen improvement from the Ravens defense in the postseason. They have also been successful in getting pressure on the quarterback, leading playoff teams with 6 sacks this postseason. The MVP of the postseason thus far for Baltimore, has been QB Joe Flacco. Flacco has thrown 8 touchdowns and zero interceptions in three games. He has done a tremendous job of evading any pressure, and his retooled offensive line has also done a good job of protecting him. Bryant McKinnie, Michael Oher and Marshal Yanda are the players to watch on the Ravens offensive line. It will be their job to control the 49ers defensive front and linebackers. For years, people have believed the Ravens offense should run through Ray Rice, and it is tough to argue with him. Rice is a threat both running and catching the ball. His fellow running back, Bernard Pierce doesn't get much press, but has actually led the Ravens in rushing in two of their three playoff games. The Ravens receivers are underrated but dangerous. Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones are both speedsters and guys that Flacco likes to target deep. Anquan Boldin is his mister reliable, and someone that can make and out-muscle corners for almost any catch. TE Dennis Pitta has emerged as another reliable and dangerous target for Flacco. The 49ers have struggled at times to contain tight ends, so Pitta is definitely someone to watch. The Ravens special teams has struggled in coverage at times, but they are dangerous on their own with Jacoby Jones. Punter Sam Koch has had a career year averaging 47.1 yards a punt. Kicker Justin Tucker has been money all season and gives the Ravens a definite advantage at that position.

The 49ers have had a transformation themselves since turning over the keys to Kaepernick. Under Smith, they were a team that won games on the back of their defense, while the offense's job was to not screw up and run the ball. Since Kap has taken over, and in the postseason particularly, the Niners have been winning games because of their offense. The Niners defense has given up an average of 27.5 points in the two playoff games, but the offense has averaged 36.5 points. The defense has struggled in four of the last five games, giving up 34, 42, 13, 31, and 24 points in those games. The run defense has been mostly strong, but the pass defense has really struggled. Carlos Rogers, Culliver, Tarell Brown will have to step up their games on Sunday. They have been beaten physically, especially by Julio Jones in the NFC Championship, something that hadn't been done to this defense in a while. They will also need to be on the same page as safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson. There have been some communication breakdowns during this poor run that have led to disastrous results. The Niners also need to find ways to get more pressure on the quarterback. Matt Ryan was torching them in the first half and had all day to throw. In the second half, the 49ers threw some blitzes at him and made things uncomfortable. Justin Smith is not at 100% and needs help from guys like Ray McDonald, Ricky Jean Francois, and Isaac Sopoaga. The player most affected by Smith's injury has been LB Aldon Smith. Aldon has gone five games without a sack after coming close to breaking Michael Strahan's single season record. He needs to bust out on Sunday, and also hopefully fellow LBs Novarro Bowman, Patrick Willis, and Ahmad Brooks can add to the pressure. Willis and Bowman will also be needed in coverage against Pitta, and watching Rice out of the backfield. Kap needs to just keep doing what he is doing. Leave teams guessing on the read option and continue to throw the ball accurately and forcefully. Frank Gore has been tremendous all season long, while LaMichael James, has provided speed and a spark since becoming active. Big game moments are when Randy Moss still makes his presence felt, and him being on the field has opened things up for Michael Crabtree. The biggest bright spot in the win over Atlanta, was the reemergence of Vernon Davis. Davis gave the 49ers and Kap a third option at receiver. I expect the Ravens to gameplan hard on him, so hopefully that means more opportunities for Moss and Crabtree. The 49ers offensive line has been one of the best all year long. Kap has made their lives easier, with his ability to take off and run, whereas Smith would hold the ball forever. Joe Staley has been playing hurt but you wouldn't know it based on his performances. Anthony Davis, Jonathan Goodwin, and Mike Iupati have been consistent all season and are the least of the 49ers worries going into Sunday's game. The 49ers special teams could be a major factor in this game. Ted Ginn might be able to break off a return or two against a weak Ravens special teams. Punter Andy Lee is consistently good, but the biggest question is kicker David Akers. Akers is kicking with zero confidence, and the 49ers may constantly have to think of Ravens territory as four down territory.

My biggest fear is the 49ers will start slowly and get behind. They have trailed in each of their playoff wins but they haven't face a team as physical as Baltimore in those games. The Ravens feeds off punching guys in the mouth, so I am hoping the Niners can exert their own hard hitting, toughness early on and set the tone. The defensive line has to make life difficult for Flacco or he will pick apart the Niners secondary. I am confident the defense will limit the effectiveness of Rice and Pierce, so it really comes down to limiting Flacco's opportunities to make plays. I think Kap might come out a little overwhelmed to start, similar to how he has looked in the opening of both playoff games. But he has shown, that he will settle down, start making his reads, and can take over a game. The Ravens defense shut down the Patriots passing game, but the 49ers read option is an extra dimension New England doesn't have. The Ravens saw something similar this year with Robert Griffin III and the Redskins, but the 49ers aren't as reliant on it as Washington is. It is important that Gore's presence is established immediately, and that offensive coordinator Greg Roman is committed to the run game. Crabtree, Moss, and Vernon Davis have to be ready to be hit and can't shy away from it. I pray that this game doesn't come down to Akers having to make a kick, as I don't even trust him to hit a 19 yard field goal at this point. Whoever wins the turnover battle will win the game. It's cliche as hell but with how evenly matched these teams are, it will likely be the difference. Besides that one slip up against Green Bay, Kap has been excellent protecting the ball. The 49ers can't afford a botched pitch or anything like that. Flacco has got to be due for an interception at some point, and I think he will give the Niners one in this game. This will be another close Super Bowl and is really a toss up. I don't think a team will win because the other team played terrible. I believe we will see a well played game, that comes down to the team with the ball last winning. I predict that team will be the 49ers, and Kaepernick will finish his dream season off with a win and the MVP trophy.

Prediction: San Francisco 24, Baltimore 20

Last Week Against the Spread: 1-0-1
Overall Against the Spread: 122-135-8

Last Week Straight Up: 1-1
Overall Straight Up: 172-93-1

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