Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Championship Test: Super Bowl Sunday

Two of the MANY stars that could be an MVP this Sunday

Fitting that this will be the most difficult game to call of all the playoff games.  The participants in the Super Bowl have both withstood trials to get to this point.  There are plenty of storylines, but storylines don’t score points or make tackles, so why bother?

Baltimore Ravens (+3.5)
For all that has been made of the 49ers' change in personnel, the Ravens changed the Offensive Coordinator and Offensive Lineman positions a few games before the commencement of the playoffs.  John Harbaugh’s decisions have paid off with phenomenal performances on offense; the Ravens have averaged 30 points per game since the start of the postseason (over five points more than their regular season average), and have only surrendered 3 sacks through 4 games.  Additionally, backup running back Bernard Pierce has emerged as a dynamic alternative to star Ray Rice, averaging over 6 yards a carry this postseason. 

Still, with all of the success of the team and its multiple weapons, the focal point is its quarterback Joe Flacco.  Although much maligned as being mediocre, Flacco has been superb this postseason. Flacco has beaten rookie sensation Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady in successive weeks in the playoffs (and outplayed each one along the way).  For historical perspective of his run, consider the fact that no one in the history of the NFL has played four games and not thrown an Interception.  If Flacco can go another game without a pick, he would be the first.  Flacco has been all-time great this postseason, dispensing 8 TDs and 828 yards to a talented and overachieving receiving group.

The defense has been outstanding.  While not nearly as stingy as its Super Bowl predecessor of 2001, it has limited teams’ scoring opportunities.  The defense has given up 14.3 per game (the Broncos scored 35, but 14 of those were given up by the Special Teams) in its run to the Super Bowl.  While not as suffocating as in years past, this defense has been just as opportunistic, recording multiple turnovers throughout the playoffs, headed by Cary Williams multiple interceptions.  And all Ray Lewis has done in his final playoff appearance is lead all players in tackles for the postseason.


San Francisco 49ers
I kept waiting on the 9-game starter to make a mistake, and Colin Kaepernick simply pointed to my watch and told me to keep tapping my foot. Kap has been amazing since his interception on his second throw of the game vs the Packers in his first playoff game.  Moreover, Vernon Davis re-emerged as the dynamic weapon that he was under Alex Smith late in the game vs the Falcons in the NFC Championship game.

[Sidenote: No one has brought up the fact that if the 49ers win, Kaepernick would become only the second African-American quarterback to pilot his team to a Super Bowl victory.  Perhaps it is a testament to how far that we have come that Kaepernick's ethnicity isnt a story.  I surmise there are two reasons for the lack of coverage of this particular storyline: 1) Because becoming the second player to do something isn’t nearly as memorable as becoming the first (Doug Williams led the Redskins to a win in the 1988 Super Bowl) and 2) Because unpacking the racial history of a mixed athlete adopted by white parents is an extremely delicate task]

Frank Gore and LaMichael James have formed their own dynamic duo in the backfield, running for key scores late in the comeback win over the Falcons.  Gore’s hard running and James’ quick-strike abilities are enough to tire any defense out, and perfectly complement one another over the course of physical contests that the 49ers often find themselves in.

The 49ers front seven is fast and physical.  San Francisco boasts the best front seven in the NFL, even with Justin Smith’s triceps injury slowing him down  (since Smith’s injury, Aldon Smith’s sack productivity has come to a screeching halt).  The battle between the Ravens re-vamped offensive line and the 49ers attacking Line/Linebackers will be crucial for both team's success.  Despite early success as a unit, the secondary got slammed with deep completions throughout their game vs the Falcons and their devastating group of receivers.

Matchup: I’ve gone back and forth for two weeks about what I think will happen, and the numbers look like they could push this game either way as well; the 49ers are undefeated this year when they hit 20 points, and the Ravens are (7-0) this year when Flacco throws for 230 yards or more.  Personally, two of my favorite players are embarking on their last best chance to win a chip; Randy Moss and Ray Lewis will share the field for the final time putting me in an impossible rooting position.

These teams mirror one another; potent offenses with talent at every skill position, and stout defensive front sevens with suspect secondaries.  Because both teams are sound, I think big plays will be prevalent.  In fact, the only thing that separates the teams is their respective belief in their kickers. The 49ers’ David Akers has struggled all year, while Justin Tucker has been a consistent attribute for the Ravens.  Colin Kaepernick and his spread-read option vs Joe Flacco and his deep ball should make for several exciting moments, but the kicking game will decide the contest. 31-28 Baltimore Ravens. Over/Under: 47. 

Who you got?