The Baltimore Ravens are AFC champions, and no one can say they don't deserve it.
The Ravens weren't the fiercest team in the regular season. They finished 10-6, winning the AFC North over the Cincinnati Bengals on tiebreakers. As the least-winning division champion, they were the fourth seed.
The Ravens then beat Andrew Luck and his miraculous Indianapolis Colts, Peyton Manning and the Broncos in Denver, and after reaching the AFC Championship Game for the third time in five years, the Ravens finally bested all contenders for the AFC crown in topping Tom Brady and the Patriots in New England.
For the first time since the 2000 season, the Ravens are going to the Super Bowl.
How They've Performed
Pro Football Focus grades are compiled by PFF's staff of film graders, who grade each player on every play all season long. The compiled season grades for all teams aren't gospel, but they are an excellent portrait of a team's strengths and weaknesses.
The Ravens were a solid team in 2012, with notable strengths and weaknesses. They were ranked 10th in overall offense and boasted the seventh-ranked passing attack.
Their run game (11th), pass protection (19th) and run-blocking (10th) were all very close to the NFL average, while they were penalized a little bit more often than average.
Pro Football Focus can't grade reputation, but the Ravens defense turned in surprisingly low marks.
The defense came in at 23rd overall. The run defense was excellent, as the fourth-best unit in the league. Their pass rush was ranked 25th, though, and the pass coverage was the second worst in the NFL.
Their struggling pass coverage was highlighted here as a problem back in October, and they've slowly regressed as a scoring defense since then. Ultimately, the Ravens allowed a 12th-best 21.5 points per game in the regular season.
The playoffs, though, have been a different story.
What Their Systems Are
The Ravens offense has been in flux. Former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was fired in the middle of the season after a two-game losing streak dropped the Ravens to 9-4.
"With our coaches and players, the solution is in the building," Ravens coach John Harbaugh told WMAR-TV at the time (via NFL.com's Albert Breer). "We are going to make the most of our opportunities going forward, and this change gives us a better possibility to achieve our goals."
Rarely has firing a coordinator midseason been a positive change, but that's exactly what's happened for the Ravens. Promoting former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell to offensive coordinator—despite never having called plays before—kick-started a moribund offense.
The Ravens have typically featured three-receiver sets with a tight end or two-receiver sets with a fullback. Under Cameron, the play-calling was very pass-heavy, despite an incredibly talented backfield. As Caldwell has settled in, the Ravens have cut down on the short passing game, emphasizing the power run and deep passing.
As a result, the Ravens have averaged 30 points per game during the playoffs, a huge boost from their 24.9 season average.
On defense, the Ravens made their name running an aggressive 3-4. However, that's changed over the years. Former defensive coordinator (and current Colts head coach) Chuck Pagano tended to bring an outside linebacker up to the line and play a hybrid 4-3.
New defensive coordinator Dean Pees comes from the Patriots system, though, where they typically run a two-gap front. And Pees has returned the traditional 3-4 to Baltimore. Above is a great shot of them lining up in their base defense, with the outside linebackers ready to blitz and cornerbacks matched up tightly against the receivers.
Who They Are
The best-performing Raven this season just might be Marshal Yanda.
The Ravens drafted the 6'3", 315-pound right guard out of Iowa in the third round of the 2007 draft. Yanda has made the Pro Bowl each of the past two seasons; this season, he was named second-team All-Pro.
PFF graded Yanda as the No. 2 overall guard. He was graded fifth among all guards in pass protection, and fourth in run-blocking. Yanda and New Orleans' Jahri Evans were the only guards to start all season and not allow a sack.
In any other season, Haloti Ngata would rate as the Ravens' top player. The dominant defensive tackle/end is playing with a torn triceps, though, and that has limited his play. Even so, the 6'4", 335-pound monster finished as Pro Football Focus' 11th-best 3-4 end, with positive grades against the run and in pass rush.
It's hard to pick a key player out of the Ravens offense. Quarterback Joe Flacco's strong arm, Anquan Boldin's crucial catches and tight end Dennis Pitta's red-zone effectiveness have all been crucial. Meanwhile, tailbacks Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce have taken over playoff games with their running, while fullback Vonta Leach wasn't named first-team All-Pro for nothing.
But wide receiver Torrey Smith—who overcame the tragic midseason death of his brother—has been the catalyst for the offense, routinely getting open deep and making incredible adjustments to Flacco's sometimes-inaccurate balls. His speed and leaping ability take the top off the defense, opening up space for Boldin, Pitta and the running game.
Over the course of the playoffs, the 6'1", 204-pound Smith has hauled in nine catches for 198 yards and two touchdowns, with both scores coming in the crucial divisional-round game against the Broncos.
Against the 49ers
Here's how the Ravens' Pro Football Focus grades stack up against the 49ers:
As you can see, they don't. When comparing regular-season performances, the Niners dominate the Ravens in almost every phase of the game. Only special teams and passing offense have even a slight edge for Baltimore.
However, in the playoffs, the Ravens have found another gear. The offense is scoring 5.1 more points per game over the regular season, and the defense has been allowing 2.5 fewer points per game.
Whether that's due to Caldwell becoming comfortable as a play-caller, Flacco maturing as a game-winning quarterback, or just Ray Lewis willing his team to victory, the Ravens the 49ers will face in the Super Bowl are a different caliber of bird.