It was fitting that the Baltimore Ravens defeated the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday's Super Bowl on a four-down goal-line stand. Not because the Ravens' identity had been shaped over so many years by their superb defense, and not because legendary Ravens Ray Lewis and Ed Reed got to be in on the deciding sequence of events.
No, it was significant because it echoed one of the Ravens' season-long defensive strengths—their red zone defense.
This year, the Ravens defense ranked second in red zone scoring percentage, allowing touchdowns on just 42.86 percent of their opponents' appearances inside the 20-yard line. All the yards in the world allowed against them—and that totaled 468 for the Niners on Sunday—often were for naught, with opposing offenses struggling to get touchdowns for their efforts.
Let's take a closer look at the goal-line stand that clinched the Ravens their second franchise Lombardi Trophy and see what Baltimore did right, as well as what the Niners did wrong.
1st-and-Goal at the Baltimore 7, 2:39 Remaining
The goal-to-go situation was the result of a 33-yard Frank Gore run that got the Niners down to Baltimore's 7-yard line. The 49ers had just over two and a half minutes to score a touchdown and four downs in which to do it. On first down, their instinct was to run.
Working out of the shotgun, the Niners chose to hand the ball off to rookie LaMichael James. On top of Colin Kaepernick taking up a defender simply because he was also a threat to take off, he had the offensive line as well as two additional blockers to help absorb the Ravens defenders.
In fact, initially a hole had opened for James, up the middle of the field off of the right tackle. It looked at first as though James might have a decent gain on the run.
However, after a two-yard gain, he was brought down by Ravens defensive end DeAngelo Tyson and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe.
2nd-and-Goal at the Baltimore 5, 2:00 Remaining
Here's where things began to get a little strange for San Francisco. After the two-yard gain, the 49ers chose not to run the ball again in their goal-to-go situation, despite how effective they had been on the ground in the second half, particularly after Ravens nose tackle Haloti Ngata left with a knee injury.
Again in the shotgun, this time Kaepernick would be looking to his playmaking receiver Michael Crabtree, who was lined up on the right side of the field. Baltimore's coverage guarded the goal line.
Kaepernick's initial instinct is to go to Crabtree right away, but when he first looks to him, Crabtree is still running his route and hasn't fully turned around to face him.
This forces Kaepernick to take a bit of extra time to scan the middle and left sides of the field in search of an open man. There is none to be found. While this happens, the space between Crabtree and Ravens cornerback Corey Graham begins to shrink.
Though it's hard to see, Kaepernick finally goes back to Crabtree and Graham simply makes a textbook defensive play, knocking the ball out of Crabtree's reach. The pass is incomplete.
3rd-and-Goal at the Baltimore 5, 1:55 Remaining
After a 49ers timeout (which would have otherwise been a delay of game without it), the offense again goes with a passing play.
Though this one isn't out of the shotgun, it is a similar call as the previous down—a throw to Crabtree on the right. Crabtree is in the slot this time.
Kaepernick again has quick designs on Crabtree catching this pass, despite being in close quarters to Ravens defenders Graham and Jimmy Smith.
The ball is on track to hit Crabtree; when it's in the air, he has seemingly enough separation on Graham to be able to catch the pass.
However, Graham ties up Crabtree, while Smith comes in and helps knock the ball away, preventing the completion.
4th-and-Goal at the Baltimore 5, 1:50 Remaining
This is the 49ers' final chance to score a go-ahead touchdown and Baltimore's last chance to prevent it. Given the Ravens' season-long success at keeping their opponents out of the end zone and the Niners managing to score in the red zone only about 55 percent of the time in 2012, it seemed like the odds were in the Ravens' favor.
But they would need more than odds—they'd need to simply execute on the field. They were, after all, just one play away from essentially clinching a Super Bowl title, and statistical tendencies don't really carry all that much weight in situations like these.
The Niners again chose the pass over the run, and chose again for Kaepernick to throw to the right side of the field to Crabtree. The thought process here was likely to wear down Graham and Smith to the point that they simply couldn't keep the ball out of Crabtree's hands.
This was a controversial play, though it started innocuously enough. The Niners offense again operated out of the shotgun, and this time it was clear Crabtree was paired up in man coverage with Smith.
Again, Kaepernick was quick to look to Crabtree. All of these throws were designed to go to him; this wasn't the result of reading the progressions and choosing his matchup as the most favorable.
As Kaepernick's floating fade traveled through the air, Smith and Crabtree traded a bit of contact. However, the pass didn't appear catchable in bounds, considering how poorly it was thrown.
The pass was incomplete, no holding call was given against Smith (despite Jim Harbaugh's protest) and the Niners turned the ball over on downs, setting up Baltimore's win.
But why did Kaepernick throw such a bad-looking pass? Pressure. The Ravens rushed Kaepernick on the play, with Ellerbe completely unblocked and barreling down on the quarterback.
If Kaepernick spent one more second making sure the throw was on-target and well-timed, he would have been flattened and sacked—quite the ignoble way to lose the Super Bowl. All he could do is hope for this third and final pass to Crabtree to connect. It didn't, and the Ravens hung on to defeat the Niners 34-31.
The goal line was the last place the Niners wanted to be in testing the Ravens in their final chance to win the Super Bowl. It would have been far easier for a long pass and a chunk of yards after the catch to give them the score, another 15-yard Kaepernick run or for Gore's run that set up the situation in the first place to have just gone seven more yards.
For all of the Ravens' defensive shortcomings over the course of the season as well as at times during this game, their one area of expertise has been keeping their end zone protected in short-yardage situations. It was the perfect way for the Ravens to clinch their Super Bowl victory.