The end of another excellent NFL season is upon us, with the last teams standing squaring off in New Orleans on Sunday for the right to be called the Champions of the NFL. The San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens were not the prohibitive favorites to make it here, but through a combination of gumption, execution, and seizing opportunities, they vanquished all others and made it this far.
This Super Bowl features some of the richest storylines in a long time. There are the Harbaugh brothers, John and Jim, coaching against one another. Imagine the divided loyalties of their parents and families. Each brother must feel as if the other will know exactly what they’re thinking and how they will scheme to win. We often talk about the chess match between coaches, but this is almost playing chess against yourself.
There is the compelling story of both starting quarterbacks. Joe Flacco in Baltimore is a free agent after the game is over, as he never truly convinced the powers that be that he could get a team to this point. He’s had numerous close calls and glimpses of greatness, but just as often he’s frittered away opportunity. How often does a team enter a Super Bowl with a starting quarterback that is allowed to hit free agency?!
On the other sideline is Colin Kaepernick, a second-year dynamo who only got the start because incumbent Alex Smith suffered a concussion. Kaepernick showed more in relief duty than Smith could ever offer, and Jim Harbaugh made the tough but correct decision to carry on with the controversial QB change. Whereas Smith had finally become a guy who simply wouldn’t lose you games, Kaepernick is a guy that can win you games. In that context, Flacco has finally proven he can win you games as well.
Of course there is the Ray Lewis angle. Since he announced that this would be his final season, the Ravens are undefeated. More to the point, they appear completely harmonious and unified. They have become the Baltimore Rayvens, coming together and rallying around the greatest leadership presence of the last 15 years. Lewis will be the first to admit he didn’t appreciate what he had the first time he made it to the Super Bowl all those years ago. Since the unfortunate incident in 2000 that left a man dead and Lewis a pariah, he has worked tirelessly to transform into Godfather Ray, an omniscient mentor to troubled players and a guiding light for teammates and opponents alike. This is his final game, and even though Lewis is no longer the most fearsome linebacker in the game his mere presence commands respect and makes every Raven around him better.
The host city is an involved storyline as well. How will New Orleans react to Commissioner Roger Goodell, the man who is singlehandedly blamed for the rapid downfall of their beloved Saints? Goodell is a four-letter word in NOLA, yet he is always a man about town and interacting with the fans no matter where he goes. New Orleans is noted for its genial hospitality, but this is testing the limits of their good nature.
As for the actual on-field game, I think it will come down to the quarterbacks. Flacco has been superb in besting Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in consecutive weeks, both on the road no less. His ability to throw over the top of the defense has proven too much for opposing defenses to handle, and he’s made smart decisions with the ball. His confidence is at an all-time high. Just as importantly, the confidence of his teammates in Flacco is at an apex. They’ve always maintained they believed in Flacco but you never really felt like they truly believed it. This time when they say it, I genuinely believe they do.
But I also think the 49ers feel that way about Kaepernick. They knew right away he was a cut above, but I really saw and felt it coalesce in the New England game. When he led them out front 31-3, there was a tangible change of body language and confidence there too. It went from “this is working well so far” to “this is the X-factor we needed to put us over the top.”
His utter evisceration of the Packers in the Divisional Round with both his arm but especially his legs erased any plausible doubt. The revitalization of Vernon Davis in the win over Atlanta was precisely the unexpected contribution that Super Bowl-winning teams get along the way.
I give the slight edge at quarterback to San Francisco because Kaepernick can positively impact the game with his speed and style even if his throwing isn’t working. Flacco can’t do that.
The running games are basically a wash; I like Ray Rice a little more than Frank Gore, but not enough to tip the scales, and the Niners have the better overall offensive line.
It’s the same with the receivers. Baltimore doesn’t have a Michael Crabtree, but San Francisco doesn’t have an Anquan Boldin.
I like the up-the-gut defense of San Francisco more, but they don’t have Ed Reed at the back of that. This is no knock on the San Francisco secondary, but few players in NFL history have ever played better and made more plays in big games than Ed Reed. Getting playmakers to make plays wins playoff games.
The other thing that wins playoff games is the unexpected contributor. From Kenny King to Timmy Smith to Larry Brown to Domenik Hixon, most Super Bowl winners have the unanticipated hero that steps up and makes a signature play or a game-changing incident. I can’t explain why, but for some reason the first two players that popped into my head when trying to divine who that player might be in this game are both Ravens: Dannell Ellerbee and Bernard Pierce. It could just as easily be LaMichael James or Tarell Brown for the Niners, but my gut says it’s the Ravens who get that guy in this game. Maybe it’s the specter of Ray Lewis’ final game bringing magic to those around him.
I also really like Baltimore’s special teams to come up big. I like the Harbaugh angle here too. Jim was the glory child, the quarterback and fast-rising head coach. John toiled out of the spotlight as a special teams coordinator despite being the big brother. This is the biggest advantage in the game, the kicking battle between David Akers and Justin Tucker. Akers has been wildly unreliable, whereas Tucker has been nails. Jacoby Jones as a return man is more dangerous than Ted Ginn, though Ginn is no slouch either. I wouldn’t put it past Ed Reed to make his big splash on the game as a punt returner. I figure this to be a close game, and special teams and field position really matter in close games.
Baltimore 29, San Francisco 27
As for some of the prop bets:
First points scored-David Akers 36-yard field goal
More passing yards-Flacco with 317
Time on Alicia Keys singing the national anthem: over 2 minutes 10 seconds. I’d take the over at 2:30.
Amount of times the Harbaugh parents are shown: More than 1.5
Number of times Ray Lewis references God in his postgame interview/press conference: take the over no matter what the number might be
Number of references, direct or inferred, about Roger Goodell in New Orleans: I’ll take the under because I think the Commish will politely but sternly warn against it.
Number of ads that I’ll actually want to watch again: 3
Will this be the highest rated Super Bowl: no, but it will make the top-3 all-time