The Baltimore Ravens weren't supposed to win the Super Bowl. The experts said they were too slow, too old, not as talented as the San Francisco 49ers—and, most of all, couldn't stop the 49ers' dynamic running game.
Yet, they won.
There were multiple plays throughout the game that were crucial, notably Ed Reed's momentum-changing second quarter interception and Jacoby Jones' 108-yard kick return at the start of the second half. But the two most crucial came from each side of the ball in the fourth quarter. Joe Flacco's audible to a pass on 3rd-and-inches was significant as well as the 49ers' final offensive play, a pass that sailed over the head of wide receiver Michael Crabtree because of physical coverage from cornerback Jimmy Smith.
Flacco's audible was, perhaps, the most important play in the game.
While watching from the television, the pressure seemed unbearable. The 49ers were making a quick comeback and Flacco had the ball in his hands on a vital down. If he hadn't gotten his offense in the right play, the 49ers may have scored once again and gotten their first lead of the game. Flacco, however, wouldn't let that happen.
He was crouched under center with the play clock ticking down. The 49ers defense initially had six defenders in the box because of their two deep safeties—a favorable look to run the ball against. However, a check by the safeties saw outside linebacker Aldon Smith come into the box to form a seven man box and strong safety Donte Whitner line up across slot receiver Torrey Smith. Whitner was at the line briefly, before dropping back again in an attempt to disguise the coverage.
This meant one deep safety and man coverage on the outsides, so Flacco called an audible to a pass play. The ball was set to go to veteran receiver and standout Anquan Boldin, who was matched up one-on-one with cornerback Carlos Rogers. Rogers, a physical corner, was rolled up to the line of scrimmage in press-man coverage.
When Flacco received the ball from center Matt Birk, he took a quick five-step drop and watched Boldin run his vertical route.The receiver was initially faced with bump-and-run coverage from the 49ers cornerback, which he handled very well as he pushed the hands of Rogers to his left and ran vertically to his right.
Boldin was now a step ahead of Rogers and continued to work down the field. Meanwhile, when Flacco's fifth and final step hit the ground, he released the ball in the direction of Boldin. The receiver turned his head around to locate the football, slowed down and sunk his shoulders before bending his knees and exploding vertically. He towered over the cornerback, who was late getting to the receiver and forced to play the ball through the hands of Boldin, which is very difficult to do.
Boldin caught the ball and held onto it tightly as he came down. The result was a 15-yard reception and a first down. Six plays later, a 38-yard field goal split the uprights and proved to be pivotal in the final seconds of the game.
Speaking of the final seconds, there has been much debate over the 49ers' final offensive play of the game, a fade route to wide receiver Michael Crabtree that fell incomplete.
Many, including the always feisty Jim Harbaugh, believed that Crabtree's progress was impeded by the physical play of Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith. Smith appeared to grab the jersey of the 49ers receiver after the allowed five yards of contact and was not flagged for it.
Crabtree was lined up on the far right of the 49ers' pistol formation. He was going to be running a fade route, which was a highly questionable call in the situation against a long cornerback like Smith.
Smith expected the fade from the 49ers after he recognized a signal that quarterback Colin Kaepernick gave to his receiver before the play (via bengals.com):
He tapped the back of his head, so I assumed it was a back shoulder (throw), so I took inside leverage and tried to get my hands on him. Perfect call, perfect play.
When the ball snapped, Crabtree released outside and Smith indeed got his hands on him. The young cornerback was very physical with the receiver on the play, as Smith explained.
I stayed square. It looked like my body was out, but he was trying to push me away. That's why he didn't call (pass interference). But I let go in just enough time because he had five yards, so I let him go and the timing was messed up.
As Crabtree inched closer to the sideline, he finally broke away from the Ravens cornerback but the ball was too high to haul in.
After the game, Crabtree discussed the incomplete pass.
I mean, it felt like there was a lot of contact. I don’t even want to say this, but if the ball had been a little lower, giving me a chance to make a play, I’m sure they would’ve called it. But it happened like that, man. I’ve got a lot of confidence in my offensive line and quarterback; we fought back. It was a comeback, and we gave it our all.
One reason the pass was high for Crabtree was because Kaepernick was pressured by inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe on an inside blitz. If he wasn't, perhaps the outcome would have been different.
All in all, there are no questions about who the champion is today. The Baltimore Ravens earned the right to call themselves NFL champions after playing hard and executing their responsibilities throughout the game.
Joe Flacco played a near flawless game, including completing an important third-and-inches pass, while Jimmy Smith held his own on the 49ers' final drive, especially on their last play. Both players were heavily criticized in the last year but stepped up big when their team needed them the most.
That's what Super Bowl champions are made of.