7 Reasons This 49ers Team Is Better Than the Baltimore Ravens
Lost in the hype of the "Har-Bowl" and all the soft-focus hysteria over Ray Lewis' final game, there is the small matter of the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens facing each other in less than two weeks for the NFL Championship.
Oddsmakers have installed the 49ers as three-point favorites in the game (to be fair, the line started out at four) and in the following slides you'll see why that point spread is flattering in the extreme to the AFC Champion Ravens.
Sure, Baltimore has already pulled off a couple of staggering road upsets in beating the Denver Broncos in the divisional round and the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, but they're going to experience a similar sensation to what Silas the Opus Dei monk must have felt in The Da Vinci Code, when he discovered he'd been tricked, reading the Biblical verse "Hithero shalt thou come, but no further."
The Ravens have beaten some good teams to get to the big game, but the 49ers are a different animal entirely.
They'll prove it on February 3rd and hoist their sixth Lombardi Trophy, winning 27-17.
Colin Kaepernick Is the Ultimate Weapon
Not to go all ESPN 30 for 30 on you, but what if I were to tell you there's a young quarterback in the league with Robert Griffin III's speed, John Elway's arm strength, Ben Roethlisberger's size and Joe Montana's poise?
Is that something you'd be interested in?
Seattle's Russell Wilson has been trumpeted all season long as the draft steal of the year, since he led the Seahawks to the playoffs as a rookie despite being a third-round pick (75th overall), but Kaepernick might have been even a better bargain for the 49ers, even though he was an early second-round selection (36th overall).
After all, both guys had exactly five quarterbacks picked ahead of them in their respective draft classes, and while the jury is out on guys like Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden, you can at least say definitively that Indianapolis and Washington are very pleased with their selections of Andrew Luck and Griffin, and would make them again.
In Kaepernick's case, though, he's beyond a shadow of a doubt head-and-shoulders better than Blain Gabbert (10th overall for Jacksonville) and Jake Locker (8th overall for Tennessee), and it's hard to imagine that Vikings or Bengals fans wouldn't happily trade Christian Ponder (12th overall) or Andy Dalton (35th overall) straight up for him.
The real question is whether Kaepernick is better than Cam Newton, the first-overall pick of the 2011 draft. He certainly is more mature and every bit as physically talented. But could Newton have led the 49ers to similar success?
In leading the team to two playoff wins, Kaepernick has compiled a 105.9 passer rating, which doesn't even factor in his rushing attempts. You may have heard that he broke an all-time single-game record for most rushing yards by a quarterback against the Packers in the divisional round.
Throwing an early pick-six didn't faze Kaepernick in that game, and neither did a 17-0 deficit at Atlanta last Sunday. Nothing seems to bother the kid, whether it's how the defense lines up against him in the zone read, or how they scheme to take away his first option in Michael Crabtree.
Kaepernick simply adjusts, keeps moving the chains and lights up the scoreboard.
What was most impressive about his performance against Atlanta was that he didn't fall for the temptation to be the hero a la Kobe Bryant. He didn't insist on being the one to carry the ball on those zone-read plays. He saw how the Falcons' defensive ends were going wide on the play, so he simply put the ball in Frank Gore's belly time and again.
That's a sign of maturity and a team-first attitude. Could Newton be that selfless and trusting of his teammates on the big stage? I doubt it.
Nearly a quarter of a century ago Sports Illustrated tabbed Randall Cunningham as the league's "ultimate weapon," and Kaepernick is the evolutionary Randall Cunningham.
Bill Walsh once said that Cunningham would've been the best quarterback in NFL history if he coached him, and now we're seeing what that hypothetical experiment would have been like in Kaepernick's early career, since he's receiving excellent coaching with Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
How can the Ravens (or anyone?) stop this kid?
Pick Your Poison on Offense
The insertion of Colin Kaepernick to starting quarterback has proved to make the 49ers darn-near indefensible. Opponents basically have no choice but to pick their poison, since they just can't take away all the team's weapons.
The Packers tried double-teaming Michael Crabtree in man coverage, and offensive coordinator Greg Roman simply called plays where all the receivers went deep and opened up huge running lanes for Kaepernick to scramble through—where spy linebacker Erik Walden had no hope of keeping up with him.
When they switched to a zone, Crabtree found the soft spots in the defense and Kaepernick found him over and over.
During the first two-and-a-half quarters the Packers crashed inside on the zone-read play to take away Frank Gore, and Kaepernick zoomed around the corner for huge gains.
Eventually they adjusted, and Gore exploited a worn-down defense to salt the game away.
The next week, the Falcons game-planned to take Kaepernick's runs away and set their ends outside on the zone read, which enabled Gore to burst through the middle, thanks to bulldozer guards Mike Iupati and Alex Boone.
The Falcons schemed to take Michael Crabtree away early, and it opened up Vernon Davis to go nuts on short crossing routes and the wheel route outside.
Finally, in complete desperation, some defenses (perhaps Baltimore in two weeks) will try jamming everyone and bringing both safeties in the box. That's when Kaepernick will go deep to Randy Moss.
The key to it all, besides the wondrous talents of Kaepernick, is the team's offensive line. All five guys are way above average, with left tackle Joe Staley and left guard Mike Iupati named to the Pro Bowl and the other three starters listed as alternates.
Having an athletic, versatile line like that gives the coaching staff the freedom to do whatever they want on offense, and they've got the players to make almost any game plan work.
Baltimore has prevailed against a couple of top-notch offenses in Denver and New England, but they haven't faced a complete, balanced attack like the one the 49ers present.
Youth Is Served on Defense
The Ravens' defense has been hyped forever, but in recent seasons the numbers haven't really warranted that kind of praise, and in reality their offensive has been the main reason they've been so successful.
Sure, they have future Hall of Famers in Ray Lewis, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and safety Ed Reed, and outstanding performers in edge rusher Terrell Suggs, safety Bernard Pollard, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and (when healthy) corner Lardarius Webb.
But most of those guys are well past their primes (Lewis, Reed and Ngata), playing hurt (Lewis, Ngata and Suggs) or in Webb's case, out for the season with a torn ACL.
Lewis, who will retire after this game, is 37-years-old and playing with a torn triceps. Reed is 34. Ngata just turned 29 and missed two games with a balky knee. Suggs, 30, tore his Achilles in the offseason and still isn't 100-percent.
The Ravens ranked 17th overall in yards allowed during the season and tied for 12th with the New York Giants in points allowed. They were tied for 15th in sacks, 19th in interceptions and forced just 25 turnovers all season long.
Anyway you slice it, it was a mediocre defense.
The 49ers, by contrast, ranked third in the league in total defense and second in points allowed, while finishing with more sacks, more interceptions and just as many takeaways.
Their defense doesn't have the "names" that the Ravens do, but by and large they're younger and healthier.
Patrick Willis, who wears No. 52 in tribute to Lewis, is 27 and has been a Pro Bowler in each of his six seasons as a pro.
Willis' running mate inside, NaVorro Bowman, is already a two-time All-Pro and is three years younger than Ellerbe.
Dashon Goldson is a two-time Pro Bowler and a ball-hawking, physical safety in the Reed mold, and just 28 years old.
Aldon Smith is the team's designated edge rusher and finished second in the league to J.J. Watt with 19.5 sacks. He just turned 23.
The one graybeard on the 49ers defense is tackle Justin Smith, 33, who like Lewis is playing with a torn triceps. Still, Smith is Lewis' polar opposite when it comes to self-promotion, so when he gets named to Pro Bowls and All-Pro teams, you know he gets there on merit rather than hype.
Finally, all of the 49ers corners are completely healthy, unlike the Ravens, including Chris Culliver, their best young corner and every bit the player that Webb is.
Maybe after the Super Bowl, the Niners defensive crew will get the attention they're due.
Consistency at Offensive Line
The 49ers have started the same five offensive linemen all 18 games this season, with Joe Staley at left tackle, Mike Iupati at left guard, Jonathan Goodwin at center, Alex Boone at right guard and Anthony Davis at right tackle.
The two biggest surprises there in terms of endurance are Staley, who missed half the season with leg injuries in both 2009 and 2010, and Boone, a former undrafted free agent who had been strictly a tackle his whole career, until being thrust into a starting guard job this season and excelling there.
The Niners enjoyed a fine season at right guard from Adam Snyder last season, but allowed him to leave for the Cardinals after they threw a pile of money at him in free agency (Snyder was awful this season).
The coaching staff certainly had high hopes for Boone, but they couldn't have expected that he'd turn out to be better than Snyder ever was, and really Boone had a Pro Bowl-worthy kind of season.
Another season or two like this and he'll be a big enough "name" to get the same recognition that fellow guards Iupati and Staley have deservedly received.
What can't be stressed enough is that the continuity of having the same five guys practicing and playing the whole season has allowed the line to develop chemistry and to get better and better all season long. Four of the five started all 16 games last season too, and that kind of health upfront is ridiculously uncommon in the NFL.
The Ravens, on the other hand, have had all kinds of upheaval along their line. Three guys, center Matt Birk, rookie guard Kelechi Osemele and tackle Michael Oher started all 16 games in the regular season, while the other 32 starts have been split between Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda (14), Jah Reid (7), Bobbie Williams (6) and Ramon Harewood (5).
Odder still, Bryant McKinnie, their starting left tackle in the playoffs, didn't start any games at all during the regular season. Inserting McKinnie into the starting lineup has allowed the Ravens' coaches to shift Oher over to right tackle, where he didn't start any games at all during the season.
Continuity at Coordinator
Speaking of continuity, the 49ers also have it with their coaching staff, the coordinators in particular, while the Ravens are once again in flux.
Both offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio have been with the 49ers the past two seasons. In fact, Fangio was also on Harbaugh's staff with the Stanford Cardinal in 2010, while Roman's been with Harbaugh since 2009.
It's well-documented, to borrow one of Harbaugh's favorite phrases, that the Cardinal took off from being a middling team in the then-Pac-10 and now Pac-12 once Fangio came aboard to guide the defense.
Roman, meanwhile, is the real brains behind the varied and complex 49ers offense, according to Harbaugh and a bevy of former and current players both with the 49ers and Stanford. It's surprising he hasn't been tabbed for a head coaching job in the league already, but his time will come.
The Ravens, on the other hand, practically need their coordinators to wear name tags. Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell has been very successful in the early going with Joe Flacco, but he only took over the job on Dec. 10, after coach John Harbaugh fired Cam Cameron.
Dean Pees is also in his first season as the team's defensive coordinator, having been promoted to that position from linebackers coach after the Indianapolis Colts hired Chuck Pagano to be their head coach.
No Short Rest This Time Around
It's true that the Ravens beat the 49ers 16-6 the last time the Harbaugh brothers coached against one another—last Thanksgiving, Nov. 24, 2011—but that game didn't exactly take place in ideal circumstances for either team.
Not only were the 49ers on the road in that game, but they were on short rest and they flew cross-country for a Thursday game. Their offensive line had a miserable showing, surrendering nine sacks in that one, and Alex Smith never had a chance.
Adam Snyder, the starting right guard back then, got hurt early in the game, and replacement Chilo Rachal was brutal. Right tackle Anthony Davis also had a poor game and got abused by Terrell Suggs all night long.
But the key play in the game was a clipping call on Frank Gore, which negated a touchdown bomb from Smith to Ted Ginn. Replays showed it was a poor call, and if the Niners scored on that play, it would've completely changed the tone of the game.
This time around both teams will be equally rested, with two full weeks to prepare, and they'll be playing on a neutral field, the Superdome in New Orleans, where the 49ers have already been victorious once this season.
The Niners have more weapons on offense and will be far better equipped to handle anything the Ravens can throw at them on either side of the ball.