The biggest day in the sporting calendar is nearly upon us. This Sunday, in New Orleans, the San Francisco 49ers will take on the Baltimore Ravens with the Lombardi Trophy on the line. Both teams have a perfect record in Super Bowls. For Baltimore, it is their second appearance in the big game. They won following the 2000 season behind one of the most dominant defenses in memory. The 49ers defense over the last two seasons is one of the most intimidating in recent years and they put their perfect 5-0 Super Bowl record on the line. Despite their defensive pedigrees, the two offenses have hogged the limelight in the playoffs, with young, play-making quarterbacks leading the way.
The 49ers, having barely earned the second seed and the first-round bye, had a spectacular playoff debut this year. Young Colin Kaepernick, the midseason replacement for deposed incumbent Alex Smith, had one of the most exhilarating games on record. Kaepernick set a new all-time, single-game mark (playoff or regular season) for rushing yards by a quarterback with 181 versus the Green Bay Packers. He notched two touchdowns on the ground and accounted for two more in the air, an outstanding day that quieted any questions pundits might have had about how he would respond to the pressure of the postseason. The NFCCG saw the 49ers fight back from an early 17-0 deficit, with Kaepernick, Frank Gore and Vernon Davis, along with some big, timely plays by the defense, leading the way to a tough 28-24 win over the Atlanta Falcons.
The Ravens road to the Super Bowl was a bit more tenuous. After easily despatching the Indianapolis Colts and rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, Baltimore headed to Denver to take on the top-seeded Broncos. In what will go down as one of the greatest playoff games ever played, the Ravens out-duelled Denver in double overtime in a game that saw momentum swing like a pendulum, one big play after another. Two kick returns for touchdowns saw the Broncos attain and maintain a lead only to see it evaporate in the blink of an eye on a late prayer-infused bomb thrown by Joe Flacco in the waining minutes of the second half. After a scoreless first overtime, a costly Peyton Manning interception set the Ravens up with great field position and rookie kicker Justin Tucker notched the game-winner. The AFCCG was almost an afterthought, but saw the Ravens get the biggest monkey off of their back with a defeat of perennial nemesis New England. A Super Bowl matchup was born.
A cursory glance at the statistics would give the 49ers the advantage. Baltimore was in the middle of the pack in yards gained, yards allowed, and first downs. The team actually gave up more first downs than they gained, hardly the statistical resume of a team knocking on glory's door. They were able to tighten things up in the red zone, though, boasting the second best red zone defense on the season.
The trend continued in the postseason, with Baltimore forcing Indy and New England to opt for three-pointers. The 49ers had had some trouble against teams with tight red zone defenses during the season, most notably Miami, but they bucked the trend against the 5th-ranked Falcons in the NFCCG, scoring on all but one trip inside the 20-yard line, the lone exception being Michael Crabtree's fumble on the goal line.
The 49ers were a stats nerd's delight. Their defense ranked amongst the best in the league during the regular season in many significant categories. They finished second in points and first downs allowed and third in yards. They were equally strong against the run and pass, when, after years of having subpar coverage units, the secondary meshed into one of the best in the league.
The offense hovered around the middle of the pack for the first half of the season with Alex Smith under center. Since the now famous switch was made to Colin Kaepernick, beginning with the Week 11 Monday Night Football encounter with the Bears, the offense has been on an upswing. Crabtree, specifically, has shone since the change was made, collecting multiple touchdowns while topping 100 yards in three of his last five games.
The 49ers offensive line is the best in the league. Period. All five starters played all 16 games. All five earned pro-bowl recognition of one kind or another and the unit won the Madden Award for best line. The one problem for the line had been sacks allowed. Since the quarterback change, the numbers have dropped, with Smith being sacked around 50% more than Kaepernick. They have allowed one sack in each of the last five games. Running the ball has rarely been a problem, and Frank Gore is among the best in the league, despite hitting the age when runners tend to see a decline.
A big question coming into this game is speed on the Ravens' defense. Many key contributors are getting long in the tooth. Ray Lewis, while putting up huge tackling totals in the postseason, is wearing a brace after suffering a torn triceps earlier in the year. The three teams they've faced in the playoffs do not match the 49ers in offensive brutality and the Ravens run defense, which has given up over 128 yards per game in the postseason will face their sternest test.
Other options to exploit the aged Ravens defense, particularly the middle of the field, might be Vernon Davis and LaMichael James. Davis had gone missing for most of the season. He collected 6 catches in the final 6 games of the year, struggling to find a rhythm once Kaepernick was installed. He remained a threat throughout it all, with teams forcing to gameplan against his unique combination of size and speed. He came alive against the Falcons, a team that struggled against tight ends, notching 5 catches for 101 yards and a score, only his second touchdown since Week 3.
Aaron Hernandez of the Patriots had a big game in the AFCCG and even Denver's little-known tight end Joel Dreessen matched a season high in receptions in the Broncos game (though it was in double overtime). Allowing catches to slower tight ends might not have hurt the Ravens too much, but seeing Davis, or No. 2 TE Delanie Walker with the ball in space would prove to be a nightmare for the Ravens.
Rookie running back LaMichael James has played well since moving into the primary backup role following Kendall Hunter's season-ending injury in Week 12. He's provided a speedy change of pace, as evidenced by his 15-yard scamper, untouched into the end zone against the Falcons. Offensive formations that feature James, Davis and Walker will seriously test the Ravens linebackers and safeties in coverage.
James has also provided a boon in the return game, averaging 29.8 yards per kick return during the season, good for third amongst players with 10 or more returns on the season. The Ravens special teams, usually a stalwart under former ST coach-turned head coach John Harbaugh, gave up two return touchdowns, one punt, one kickoff, against the Broncos in the Divisional Round.
The Ravens defense has played well of late, after an underwhelming regular season. Ray Lewis, retiring after the Super Bowl, and Ed Reed, losing a step at safety, should both be hall of famers. Terrell Suggs, once a terror who amassed 3 sacks and a forced fumble in the meeting between the two teams on Thanksgiving last season, is not full-strength after an injury plagued season. Haloti Ngata has been impenetrable in the middle of the line in previous years, but has shown some signs of slowing down as well. The 49ers had no problems with immovable object B.J. Raji of the Green Bay Packers in their divisional round encounter.
For the Ravens on offense, the game will rest on Joe Flacco's right arm. He had an average year for a player keen to attain elite status, both in name and in pay. He finished 14th in yards passing, 15th in touchdowns, 22nd in completion percentage and 16th in yards per pass attempt, well behind both Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick in that last, critical category. His passer rating was good for 14th in the league.
But that was the regular season, and in the postseason Flacco has been incredible. He's posted passer ratings of over 100 in each of the three games, while throwing 8 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Playoff football is all about the right team at the right time, and Flacco is the right guy, right now. The last two seasons' playoffs have thrown conventional wisdom out the window, leading many experts to pick the Ravens based on Flacco's hot hand.
Catching the ball for Flacco are a variety of weapons. Torrey Smith provides the deep threat and has been up and down all season. He caught two long touchdowns against the Broncos but was quiet in the other two games. He topped 100 yards only twice on the year. Anquan Boldin is their possession receiver and his game against Indy was his best in years. 5 catches for 145 yards and a score were more than enough to put away the overmatched visitors. Dennis Pitta, Flacco's security blanket, caught 61 passes, tied for second on the team, to go with 7 touchdowns.
Both Boldin and Pitta might have trouble gaining yards after the catch against the sure-tackling 49ers secondary, though Smith may trouble them deep. In the regular season, the 49ers rarely let receivers get behind them, but against the Falcons, Julio Jones was able to exploit them over the top, a development that has not gone unnoticed around the league, least of all by the Ravens.
Ray Rice will be the other crucial piece to the Ravens puzzle on offense. The hard-running back is a dual threat, gaining 1143 yards on the ground with 9 scores to go with 61 receptions out of the backfield. Getting him going will be a key against the 49ers' defense. San Francisco went 1-3-1 when giving up 100 or more yards on the ground during the year. Baltimore topped that mark 11 times during the season and in each of their three playoff games.
Rookie backup Bernard Pierce has been outstanding, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. He's averaged 6.3 yards per run in the playoffs. Stopping the Ravens' running game and making them one-dimensional will be one of the deciding factors in the outcome of the game. It should be noted that Baltimore's three lowest run totals on the season were against the three best run defenses they faced on the year, in Denver, Houston and Pittsburgh, all in the top seven. The 49ers are ranked fourth.
The 49ers defense features six Pro Bowlers and two alternates. Justin Smith anchors the line and is the heart and soul of the defense. Like Lewis, he is playing through a triceps injury and wearing a brace. During his two and a half game absence at the end of the season the 49ers experienced a major drop off defensively. Most of their worst performances in both yards and points allowed have come in the last 5 games, with the offense forced to carry the team.
The 49ers linebacking corps is one of the best in recent memory. Second-year pro Aldon Smith set a franchise record for sacks in a season and tallied the most sacks ever for a player in their first two years, besting Hall of Famer Reggie White's total. He was on pace to eclipse the all-time single-season mark until Justin Smith went down injured. Aldon Smith has gone sackless over the last 5 games. The Ravens have done well protecting the quarterback all season, so the drought may continue.
In the middle, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are the best inside tandem in the league, both being named to the Pro Bowl. Bowman led the team in tackles. Ahmad Brooks finally received recognition for his strong play. He came up huge in the NFCCG, swatting down a pass and pressuring Matt Ryan on another during the Falcons' final drive. He doesn't always show up big in the stat sheet but his teammates and coaches rave about him. He made SI's Peter King's All-Pro team. All three will be required to keep Pitta and Rice quiet.
The secondary, previously the weakness of the defense, has morphed into one of the best in the league. Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson are both hard-hitting, with Goldson being more of a ballhawk. The Ravens don't turn the ball over much, finishing tied with the 49ers for second-fewest turnovers in the league with only 16. Oddly enough, both defenses forced 25 turnovers. With both teams protecting the ball well, a single turnover can swing the game.
The secondary's struggle against the deep ball in Atlanta adds another aspect to this game, one that would not have been on the table before the NFCCG. The Ravens excel at the long ball, with Flacco completing 17 passes of 40 or more yards on the year. Cornerbacks Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver will need to do a better job against Baltimore's receivers than they did versus Atlanta.
A big mystery may be special teams. As mentioned, the Ravens gave up two return scores to the Denver Broncos. The 49ers had their own struggles this year, with previously reliable David Akers pushing numerous kicks a foot or two wide. If the game is close and comes down to field goals, which it may, considering the Ravens' red zone defense, the 49ers could be in trouble.
It shouldn't come to that. The 49ers possess too many weapons on offense. The usual suspects of Crabtree, Gore and Davis will be closely monitored by the Ravens, but role players like James and Walker should be able to make some key plays. The speed of Colin Kaepernick and some of the other weapons will test the Ravens from boundary to boundary on the astroturf at the Superdome. They will be able to put points on the board.
Can the 49ers stop Joe Flacco? The triple threat in the receiving game that the Falcons possess is unique in the league, and teams struggled with it all year. The Ravens do not possess that same talent in the passing game. Torrey Smith may get by them once, but the speed and sure-tackling of the Niners' coverage unit will allow them to make the plays against the rest of the Ravens' skill players. I see Flacco having a good game, getting his share of passes and yards, but unable to exploit the defense with the long ball on a regular basis, despite his best efforts.
The 49ers, being the more complete team, should be able to grind out a victory playing fundamental football. Many are claiming that the Ravens are the hotter team, but the 49ers offense has averaged 36.5 points per game in the postseason to the Ravens 30. It's not that the Ravens are hotter than the 49ers, they're hotter than expected. But with 9 Pro-Bowlers and twice as many first-round draft picks on the team, the Niners' talent pool is too deep. On a team with an abundance of playmakers, it's not a question of whether or not someone will make 'the' play, but who will make it. 49ers 26, Ravens 20.