Based on their stellar playoff run, it appeared the Baltimore Ravens were destined to win the Super Bowl, and considering how they handled the San Francisco 49ers in the first half of Sunday's game, it looked to be an inevitability.
Though the second half proved to be a challenge for the Ravens, they never lost sight of their ultimate goal and managed to secure themselves their second Lombardi trophy in franchise history, defeating the 49ers, 34-31, in a twisting, turning game that required big plays on offense, defense and special teams to pull off the win.
The postseason-experienced Ravens started strongly, scoring on their opening drive on a 13-yard Joe-Flacco-to-Anquan-Boldin touchdown strike—something that has become all-too familiar in the past few weeks. Flacco handled pressure well, connecting with receivers and extending drives even when the Niners pass rush appeared to close in, and by the end of the first half he had thrown his way to a 21-6 lead over San Francisco.
At the same time, Baltimore's defense did a strong job of containing Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick when it came to him taking off, holding him to just 16 yards and two runs.
Though Kaepernick's passing did cause them some fits—tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker combined for 114 yards on six total catches in the half thanks to targeting the midfield coverage, Ray Lewis' area of responsibility, the strong Ravens red zone defense managed to hold them to a mere two field goals in that span.
It also didn't hurt that Baltimore's defense forced two Niners turnovers on consecutive possessions, the first a LaMichael James fumble recovered by Arthur Jones and the second an Ed Reed interception of Kaepernick, with the former resulting in a Dennis Pitta touchdown and the latter likely three points had head coach John Harbaugh not called for kicker Justin Tucker to fake the field goal and try to run for nine yards, which netted him eight.
At the halftime break, the Ravens had outscored the Niners, 21-6, had outgained them in total yards 187 to 129, had 15:30 in time of possession to the 49ers' 14:30 and converted six of eight third downs while the Niners did so just once in their five chances.
Flacco was near-flawless in that span, completing 13 of his 20 passes for 192 yards and three scores, while the 16 total Ravens runs took time off the clock and successfully confounded San Francisco's defense though it netted just 54 yards. Momentum was heavily on Baltimore's side, but with the Niners having made their way to the Super Bowl after being down 17-0 to the Atlanta Falcons two weeks prior, there was no reason for the Ravens to count their rings before they had been minted.
Indeed, the tide turned in the second half. Though Jacoby Jones took back the opening kickoff 108 yards for a score, extending the Ravens' lead to 22 points, the 35-minute break in the midst of San Francisco's next drive, caused by a blackout in the Superdome seemed to have helped the Niners regroup even more so than the halftime break preceding it.
Though the 3rd-and-13 the Niners faced when the lights came back on resulted in a punt, the pendulum quickly swung in their favor.
In their next drive, Kaepernick connected with Michael Crabtree for a 31-yard touchdown throw-and-catch aided by missed tackles by Ravens defenders Cary Williams and Bernard Pollard. Two minutes and 20 seconds later, the Niners scored again, this time on a 10-yard Frank Gore run on a drive that began on a Ted Ginn, Jr. return that took him all the way to Baltimore's 20-yard line.
Then, on the Ravens' next possession, Rice fumbled—his third of the postseason, despite only turning the ball over once during the regular season—and what would have been a missed 39-yard David Akers field goal turned into a 34-yard make thanks to a roughing the kicker penalty on Baltimore's Chykie Brown. In 4:10 of game play, the Niners suddenly put up 17 points and the Ravens lead shrunk to just five points.
In the fourth quarter, the Ravens again looked to be in trouble. While a Tucker field goal gave them more breathing room, with the score at 31-23, the 49ers instantly responded with a 15-yard Kaepernick rushing touchdown. In fact, the run game began to pay off greater and greater dividends for the Niners in the latter parts of the game after Ravens nose tackle Haloti Ngata left with a knee injury—they had just 53 total rush yards in the first half but ended the game with 182.
What saved the Ravens, ultimately, was their ability to maintain the small cushion of a lead even when the Niners seemed to have sole possession of the momentum. Their red zone defense, in particular, shone in the final minutes of the game. The Niners had just gone on a four-possession tear that netted three touchdowns and a field goal and they were again knocking on the Ravens door in four-down territory.
That goal-line stand resulted in the Niners turning the ball over on downs, the Ravens sacrificing a safety for strategic purposes and thus winning the game, 34-31.
Flacco won the Super Bowl MVP award after going 22-of-33 for 287 yards and three touchdowns and the Ravens managed to avoid allowing the Niners the greatest comeback win in Super Bowl history despite giving up 110 rushing yards to Gore, and over 100 yards apiece to Crabtree and Davis.
The Ravens ultimately lost the yardage battle 468 to 367, trailing the Niners in both rushing and passing, but it didn't matter. It simply continued the theme from their entire playoff run—bend, but don't break on defense and make the most of the offensive opportunities afforded to them. It was only fitting that the numbers played out that way.
This is a Super Bowl victory to be relished in Baltimore. With so many changes ahead, who knows if this will be a team in contention in 2013.
Gone will be Lewis and probably Reed. Flacco's looming (big) payday means other impending free agents won't be able to stay, what with the Ravens so close to the salary cap. Potential casualties include Boldin, Paul Kruger (who notched two of the team's three sacks on Kaepernick), Bryant McKinnie and Dannell Ellerbe. Center Matt Birk could also be headed for retirement.
This may not be their only or last chance, but it was important that they play this game as though it were, because for many Ravens on that roster, they will never again have the opportunity to hoist the Lombardi trophy and celebrate. If not now, then when?
The Ravens postseason run has been rife with compelling storylines, from Flacco's "eliteness" to Lewis' retirement, but none of those stories carry any weight without this Super Bowl win. It seemed like the football fates aligned to give Baltimore this win, simply because it fits the narrative. But this wasn't a scripted drama—this was the Ravens playing a football game, sometimes well and sometimes poorly, but ultimately doing so better than their San Francisco rivals.
What comes next might be less thrilling, but for now, it doesn't really matter.