The Thinking Man's Guide to Super Bowl XLVII

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The Thinking Man's Guide to Super Bowl XLVII
Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Goodbye, Ray.

Is it game time yet for the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers?

Did you know Jim Harbaugh and John Harbaugh are brothers? Did you know Ray Lewis is playing in his final game and allegedly has an affinity for deer antlers? Did you know Randy Moss is still possibly insane?

Two weeks to prepare for the Super Bowl in this technological age of instant information makes for a great game, but the mass overanalysis and coverage make for an annoying two weeks of hype.

It feels like I have been number-crunching the 49ers and Ravens for a month already. Joe Flacco is underrated in the clutch; Colin Kaepernick rarely keeps the ball on the zone-read option; and the Ravens’ timeline marks them as the team of destiny.

The “HarBowl” aspect is interesting, as are all the decorated players going after a Super Bowl ring, some potentially playing their final game.

Flacco and Kaepernick might not be a sexy quarterback duel, but these teams are very talented beyond the quarterback position. Perhaps more talented than most of the recent Super Bowl teams.

This also might be the best matchup of running backs (Frank Gore and Ray Rice) in a Super Bowl since Eddie George and Marshall Faulk in Super Bowl XXXIV.

The 49ers arguably played the most exciting game of the regular season against New England in Week 15. The Ravens arguably played the most exciting game of the playoffs against Denver. Now we wait to see if these teams can deliver one more classic this Sunday.

 

Expect a close game, and what to expect from one

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Super Bowls are close these days.

Super Bowl Sunday used to be a day in which the only winners were the fans of the victorious team. The rest of the football fans usually watched a stinker that was free of late-game drama.

That is no longer the case, as we live in the golden age of Super Bowls. Only 10 of the first 31 Super Bowls were within one score and had the trailing team with possession of the ball in the fourth quarter. Twelve of the last 15 have been like that, including nine straight.

So you should expect a close game, but nothing is guaranteed.

The 49ers have played in very few close games this year, hence their odd 1-0-1 record in fourth-quarter comeback opportunities. The Ravens are 4-2, though they have won four straight with Flacco as the quarterback.

The expectations should be for a low-scoring game, which makes it more likely it will be close. But if one of these teams did win in blowout fashion, it would likely be San Francisco.

But in a close one, like most of our recent Super Bowls that have gone down to the final minute, you have to give the advantage to Baltimore.

Flacco has led 15 game-winning drives and several other impressive go-ahead scores in his career, and this experience should help. You just cannot do what Eli Manning did in Super Bowl XLII or Ben Roethlisberger in Super Bowl XLIII without some prior experience at that type of situational football.

Kaepernick has only started nine games, which trails Jeff Hostetler (six) and Vince Ferragamo (seven) for the fewest starts prior to a Super Bowl. Both of those quarterbacks were faced with a comeback situation: Hostetler led a game-winning field-goal drive (though 7:20 remained in the game), while Ferragamo threw an interception in Pittsburgh territory.

We just have not seen Kaepernick put together a long drive that was actually a series of plays to put the 49ers ahead late. It has usually just been one big play, which is great if you can get it.

Kurt Warner’s second game-winning drive was the 73-yard touchdown to Isaac Bruce in Super Bowl XXXIV, but you cannot count on these plays, especially against a veteran Baltimore defense that has allowed only two plays of more than 30 yards in the postseason (zero plays of more than 40 yards).

Both of Kaepernick’s game-winning drives have covered just 38 yards, and they involved one pass attempt to Michael Crabtree.

We can only be so fortunate to watch another Super Bowl in which both offenses had chances late in the game to take the lead. If this one does, Baltimore simply has more experience than San Francisco at closing the game.

 

Regular season has little face value for both teams

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Jim Caldwell: Who would have thought?

It is easy to look at the statistics and conclude San Francisco was the better team this season. The 49ers outscored their opponents by 70 more points than the Ravens did.

However, each Harbaugh brother made a bold move late in the season that made a lot of their regular-season statistics almost null and void.

Jim Harbaugh stuck with Kaepernick as his starting quarterback after the Week 10 concussion suffered by Alex Smith, while John Harbaugh replaced offensive coordinator Cam Cameron with Jim Caldwell in December after back-to-back losses.

You can say both moves have played out wonderfully, looking at what the teams have done since that point to get here. But there are still plenty of similarities between the teams besides the coaches coming into this world out of the same…entry point.

Both the 49ers and Ravens had 16 giveaways and 25 takeaways this season. Baltimore scored 398 points; San Francisco had 397 points. That is as close as those numbers get for all-time Super Bowl matchups.

But what about the recent play, if that’s what really matters most these days to win a Super Bowl?

After all, six of the last seven Super Bowls have been won by the team with the inferior record in the regular season. Only the 2008 Steelers (12-4) beat the Cardinals (9-7), and that was no picnic.

Baltimore has only had its four key defensive players together for the postseason, which makes a huge difference. Caldwell has opened up the offense, which has always had the talent, but not the consistency, and he is getting the best stretch out of Flacco in his career.

The 49ers actually have regressed on defense, surrendering 28.8 points per game since the New England game in Week 15, which is when stud lineman Justin Smith was injured.

However, that number is a bit misleading with two return touchdowns and two garbage-time scores (one from the Packers and one from the Cardinals). Still, this is not the same defensive team we are used to seeing, while the Ravens are back to playing great defense with an offense that is finally producing on a consistent basis.

There are plenty of reasons for neither team to be here. Baltimore’s crazy timeline is well documented, but even the 49ers could not win three games in a row until just doing so in their last three games.

Yet here they are after making the necessary plays in the postseason, which just further shows how unnecessary it is to dominate the regular season in today’s NFL.

If this regular season is not that important, then the 16-6 win by the Ravens on Thanksgiving last season is even less relevant this week. Don’t worry about that game; this one will have more points and play out much differently.

Guaranteed.

 

When San Francisco has the ball…

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It is hard to pick which offense/defense matchup is more interesting here, because they both should be fun to watch. Both offenses will be seeing the best defense they have seen this postseason.

But if one is more likely to decide how this game is played, then it will have to be the San Francisco offense against the Baltimore defense.

Now, one would think after holding down offenses with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady on the road, this 49ers offense should be no problem for the Ravens, right?

That’s where the difference in team philosophy comes into play. Even including Andrew Luck and the Colts, in these playoffs the Ravens have played three quarterback-dependent offenses that love to use the shotgun and no-huddle/hurry-up offense. That’s not what the 49ers do.

The 49ers are a run-based offense, and they will play much more of a smash-mouth attack. The Ravens of course welcome that, but it’s not what they have been playing against in recent weeks, so keep an eye for some early formation changes from San Francisco and see how the veteran Ravens react.

Due to Kaepernick’s inexperience, he simply has not yet seen everything in the NFL like a veteran would. He has to keep an eye on Ed Reed, and Lewis will communicate calls to his defense to slow this running attack down.

Limiting Kaepernick’s ground success is very important, though the Ravens cannot overcommit to him. The numbers prove he is more likely to scramble on his own than he is to get the ball by design, and he is very effective at both, which makes this hard to defend.

Delanie Walker has been targeted as often as Vernon Davis since Kaepernick took over, while he prefers Crabtree more than Alex Smith ever did. Those have to be the standout receivers for San Francisco.

Randy Moss can talk about being the greatest receiver ever, but he likely will not be a factor, much like the last three years of his NFL life.

Baltimore has a great player at every level of the defense, and they are very good at tipping balls and causing problems with turnovers. San Francisco usually protects the ball very well, but you never know which way the ball will bounce.

The offensive line for the 49ers should stand up well against Paul Kruger, who has made a lot of his sacks against bad lines this season. A pass rush is always important, but the Ravens must maximize the looks they throw at Kaepernick.

New Orleans infamously used a different defensive game plan each quarter against Peyton Manning in Super Bowl XLIV. With a bye week, you have the time to do this, and every defense should take advantage in that way. Kaepernick is not going to play a chess game the way Manning would.

San Francisco can never abandon the run unless it is absolutely necessary, as that will help set up big pass plays, just like how they worked in Atlanta. Kaepernick has never thrown more than 36 passes in a game, and that should continue as it will be important to get Gore a lot of carries.

As always, situational football will help decide the outcome of this one, and this is where the 49ers struggle. They were only 25th on third-down conversions and 21st at red-zone touchdown percentage this season, and those numbers actually fell after the switch to Kaepernick.

Baltimore was the No. 2 red-zone defense at keeping offenses out of the end zone this season, so that is the area to watch.

I think Baltimore has beaten better competition in the playoffs than San Francisco, but this is definitely a different style of matchup than playing the Broncos or Patriots. The key will be for San Francisco to win the turnover battle, which it does as well as anyone (23 times since 2011), and for Kaepernick to make more plays with his arm rather than just his legs.

 

When Baltimore has the ball…

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For years, everyone has said Ray Rice has to get the ball a lot, but here's a very unusual stat: Flacco is 5-2 when he throws at least 45 passes in a game, which is the best record in NFL history (minimum five games).

Now, Flacco has never attempted more than 36 passes in his 12 playoff games, and Baltimore would probably be wise to try to stick to that range this week.

However, the 49ers are a defense you can move the ball against. Good quarterbacks have been doing it often since last season, but the key is producing points and limiting turnovers. That’s the hard part.

Rice needs his carries, and rookie Bernard Pierce can also get some, but this is not a game where the Ravens can just hide Flacco until it is 3rd-and-10. That is a recipe for disaster. Once the Ravens went to the pass in New England, Flacco picked the Patriots apart.

San Francisco is a better defense, but the Baltimore offensive line has been playing great, stifling the supposedly great pass rush from Denver. Aldon Smith’s production has disappeared, not coincidentally in time with Justin Smith’s injury.

Flacco should not be under siege in this game, though I have always felt he was a quarterback that needs to be blitzed because of the lack of urgency with which he plays the game. But as always, blitz responsibly.

Plays are there to be had against this San Francisco defense, and the Falcons proved that with a dominant game by Julio Jones. Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin may not be Jones and Roddy White, but they are playmakers, and Smith in particular needs to shine big in this one.

Dennis Pitta is an underrated tight end that made the game-winning touchdown against the 49ers last year (the first of his career), and he is a player to watch in the red zone. But there is no doubt Smith needs to be the leading receiver for Baltimore to maximize offensive success this week.

Caldwell must stick with the run, but do not overdo it on first and second down.

Second down is where the success has been had against this defense, and that is where the Ravens can get creative with setting up deep shots to Smith.

The late-game situational football may favor the Ravens because of the quarterback and better kicker (right now), but Baltimore is also not a great third-down offense, ranking 20th this season.

But they are better in the red zone, ranking 11th in touchdown percentage. However, the San Francisco defense has allowed the fewest drives into the red zone out of any team this season.

It is going to be a physical slugfest. Both offenses are going to look for big plays. The team that makes more of them, commits the fewest mistakes and converts some of those 3rd-and-long situations will win the game.

 

Will special teams be special?

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Under pressure.

Both teams lost in heartbreaking fashion after special teams errors in last season's conference championship games. This year, the Ravens had a statistically great special teams unit, though they did allow those two long return touchdowns to Denver in the playoffs.

Returns aside, this game will be about field position. The 49ers have been the best team in the league the last two years at managing field position. Both punters, Andy Lee (49ers) and Sam Koch (Ravens), average over 47 yards per punt. But we know punters don’t win Super Bowls.

Kickers can win or lose them, and that is the interesting angle here. Justin Tucker is only a rookie, but he has been great this season, converting 30-of-33 (90.9 percent) field goals in the regular season and both of his attempts in the playoffs.

Tucker has hit all five of his kicks in clutch situations, including three game-winning field goals. This game will be in a dome, which means perfect kicking conditions. 

The wild card is David Akers, who has struggled this season. No kicker attempted more field goals (42) than Akers, but he only made 29 of them (69.0 percent).

He missed from 41 and 51 yards in overtime against the Rams, costing the 49ers two wins there. His last attempt was a 38-yard kick in Atlanta, and he bounced that one off the left upright.

Given the apparent mismatch in the red zone between San Francisco’s offense and Baltimore’s defense, it is likely Akers will have to come through with points for the 49ers.

With the ghosts of Scott Norwood and Billy Cundiff haunting this game, we could see the third-ever missed field goal in a do-or-die situation in championship game history.

Maybe Jim Harbaugh uses this flaw to his advantage at some point in the game and goes for a fourth-down conversion that leads to a touchdown instead of a field goal. Or maybe a fake field goal that will be talked about for years to come.

You do not expect much from special teams, but it has proven to play a critical role in many big games in NFL history.

 

Super Bowl prediction

Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, but three times is a pattern. After picking against Baltimore in each playoff round, it is time to go with the Ravens to finish the run as this year’s team of destiny.

We have seen this often since the Pittsburgh Steelers did it seven years ago. A good team gets on a run at the right time, and regular-season stats be damned, goes on to win four straight in the playoffs.

Baltimore’s been building toward this point for five years, while it has only been two years for the 49ers. This could be the last good opportunity the Ravens have, so they cannot waste it. San Francisco has the talent to win right now, but I just see them having to wait at least another year.

Older brother beats little brother again.

Score: Ravens 23, 49ers 20

MVP: Joe Flacco

 

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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