Friday, February 1, 2013

Bring It Home

It shouldn't be that difficult to figure out who I'm picking to win Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday, but the reason for my selection goes deeper than my allegiance. The 49ers and the Ravens appear pretty evenly matched, much moreso than most Super Bowls tend to be.

Usually, when the 49ers have been in the Super Bowl, I've felt fairly confident that the 49ers are going to win the game. Super Bowl XXIX was a pretty good example of this. The 49ers were far and away better than the San Diego Chargers, and the 18 1/2 point spread was indicative of that. Basically, come game day, I felt that there was no earthy way the 49ers wouldn't win, and I was right. The Chargers never posed a serious threat and the 49ers cruised to a 49-26.

This season, I believe the 49ers are a better team than the Ravens, but they're not so much better that the game is a mismatch. Just about everything I've read and seen and heard over the two weeks of hype leading up to the game has proven that although the 49ers are favored by 3 1/2 points, it's really anyone's game.

The Ravens come into this Super Bowl riding an emotional high that's been centered around their retiring superstar Ray Lewis. They've overcome some pretty heavy obstacles to get here. I didn't pick them in any of their 3 playoff games, and they shut me up by winning all 3. Prior to the Wildcard Round, I ridiculed their Quarterback, Joe Flacco, as a wimp, and he's shut me up by playing some of the best Football of his life. They beat the Colts at home pretty convincingly. On the road in Denver, in an impossible situation, they won again thanks to a miracle Touchdown pass from Flacco to Jacoby Jones and their defense's ability to force Peyton Manning into making a key mistake in Overtime. They capped off their journey with another impressive road victory in New England, where they just laid down the hammer on Tom Brady in the second half of the game and coasted home from there. Flacco has proven himself capable of any challenge and unflappable in a difficult situation, and his play is really the reason they've made it to the Super Bowl. He's going to be a major challenge for the 49ers. Ray Rice has played well, but it's been the play of their receivers, specifically Jones and Torrey Smith, and Anquan Boldin, who has really raised his game to another level after a subpar regular season.

They'll be facing a 49ers defense that really got lit up by Matt Ryan and the Falcons in the Championship game, and took a half to really get going against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Their pass rush holds the key to this game. Ever since Justin Smith injured his triceps against New England, it hasn't been the same. Aldon Smith, who set a club record with 19 1/2 sacks this season, hasn't had one since Smith got injured. Though Justin Smith is back, he's clearly not 100%, and it's allowed opposing Quarterbacks to put up some gaudy numbers against them. However, in spite of this, the 49ers have been able to get stops when they absolutely had to. Though they were in a real dogfight in the Green Bay game, they eventually wore down the Packers' offensive line in the 3rd quarter, slowing down Rodgers enough for the offense to put the game out of reach. In Atlanta, they barely laid a hand on Ryan, but come the second half, they forced him into a pair of turnovers, and once they got the lead, they came up with a huge 4th down stop in the closing minutes to seal the victory. Even with their pass rush suffering, guys like NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks, Carlos Rogers, Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner and Tarell Brown raised their game enough to compensate. Patrick Willis, of course, has always been on another level. One huge thing the 49ers have been able to do all season has been that even when they allow a receiver to make a catch, they've usually tackled him right there and prevented a bigger gain.

Though the 49ers have built their reputation on defense these past two years, it's been the offense that has stolen the show in the Playoffs. It's all revolved around Colin Kaepernick, who has proven himself a serious threat no matter what he does with the ball. The Packers tried to muscle up against their running backs, so Kaepernick simply ran around them. The Falcons tried to cut off the edges of the field to prevent him from running, so instead he handed off to Frank Gore and LaMichael James and let them do the damage. And neither of those teams did a very good job of stopping him from throwing the ball, whether it was to Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss or Vernon Davis.

The Ravens defense did a good job against all of their playoff opponents, particularly New England. But all of their opponents had problems running the ball against them, which allowed them to key in on stopping the Quarterback. They haven't faced someone quite as multifaceted as Kaepernick, and the 49ers tandem of Frank Gore and LaMichael James (who has emerged as a star-in-waiting this postseason). The Colts didn't have it with Donald Brown and what's-his-face, the Broncos backs were unimpressive, and they just knocked Stevan Ridley out cold in the Championship. Gore and James will prove a bit more formidable a test. The other problem they have is that, unlike the 49ers, who boast a lot of youth and speed on defense, the Ravens defense is comprised mostly of veterans who are entering the latter stages of their careers. Ray Lewis doesn't have the sideline-to-sideline speed he once had, and if he matches up one-on-one with Vernon Davis, that's going to be a problem. Their pass rush has been spotty, too. The key for the Ravens on defense, much like for the 49ers, will be if they can generate a pass rush against a 49ers Offensive Line that's been great all season. The other key will be if their Linebackers and Secondary can prevent the 49ers from turning the short pass into the big gain. Though the 49ers were able to open up a much more vertical passing game with Kaepernick at the helm than they were with Alex Smith, they still rely on the quick passes and short routes an awful lot.

Special Teams is something else that could rear its ugly head on both sides. The Ravens kick coverage team has had its share of problems. They allowed a pair of kick returns for Touchdowns against Denver. Though Ted Ginn, Jr, hasn't been as explosive as he has been in years past, he's still a threat, and LaMichael James has also performed well returning kickoffs. Jacoby Jones on the Ravens side has been very solid. But the biggest wildcard of the game is David Akers for the 49ers. An elite Kicker for years, Akers has struggled with injuries and inconsistency all season, to the point where he's now a major liability. He missed an eminently makeable Field Goal in Atlanta. His confidence appears completely shot and the 49ers already attempted to bring in another Kicker to compete for the job, but that didn't work. Many have questioned why Akers wasn't cut outright, but the real reason is that most out-of-work Kickers are out of work for a reason: They're not very good. If the game comes down to a Field Goal, that's a sticky situation. If Akers misses a Field Goal early, it calls the way the 49ers play out the rest of the game into question. I have the feeling that the 49ers may go for it on 4th down more than once in this game. The hope is that it won't come down to that. One thing that the 49ers have done well, particularly with Kaepernick at Quarterback, is finishing off their drives with Touchdowns rather than settling for Field Goals.

One intangible thing I've noticed amid the hype-fest is the focus of the two teams. Ever since the 49ers won the Championship, the focus has been on prepping and planning to win the Super Bowl. That seems to be the singular focus across the team, outside of an ill-advised comment from Chris Culliver, and an outrageous statement from Randy Moss that may have been done to draw attention away from his teammates so they can focus and prepare, and onto himself, since he's used to all sorts of media attention anyway. On the other hand, the Ravens appeared to be more interested in junking the Patriots and complaining, be it Flacco talking about next year's Super Bowl in New Jersey, or Bernard Pollard whining about fines, rather than discussing the game, and what's besides the point is that Ray Lewis is the only player anyone seems interested in saying anything about, whether it's good or bad. As a team, their focus has come off really weird. This may be another one of my ridiculous observations, and may mean nothing, but it's something worth noticing.

Putting it all together, I think this is the 49ers game. They have the players that can control the tempo of the game, and the kind of rhythm on both sides of the ball that, when they're working well, can slowly but surely wear down their opponent. This is how they've won in the Playoffs, by wearing down their opponent. Even when they've started slow, they haven't panicked, they stuck to their game plan and remained patient enough for the games to work back into their favor. Two major things that can't be coached, youth and speed, are on their side. Two weeks ago, I said that they played this entire season to get to the Championship game and win, so that they could go forward and win the Super Bowl. The chance is right there for them, and I believe they will go out on Sunday and grab it.
Prediction: 49ers 30, Ravens 23

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