Super Bowl XLVII Preview (It’s 47. Drop the gladiatoresque numerals, already.)

Blair Miller > Super Bowl XLVII Preview, 2012 Season  (47. It’s 47. Drop the gladiatoresque numerals, already.)

We searched long and hard through our staff, and decided to elect our only staff member to take a look at some factors that could play a role in the game’s outcome. 

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Oh, baby!  After 21 weeks of fist pumping, tears shed, elation, defeat, a referee lockout, beds shat, amazing comebacks, broken records, youth movements, memorable retirements, broken records and all other manner of NFL-brewed craziness the big game is finally here!

Has there been a more difficult Super Bowl to predict in recent years?  (Keeping in mind that with upsets the outcome seems easy to predict.)  Let’s hope that means that we get a good game, because we’ve been spoiled as of late.  (See below.)

I’m gonna be happy to avoid making too much of a concrete prediction, because this is a great, compelling matchup.  I’ll say this: I like the Niners.  I almost always like the chances of the team league with the two most physical lines in football  – not to mention the best linebackers.  But I’ve only predicted two games wrong in these playoffs: I picked the Ravens to lose to the Broncos and Patriots.  I may be as slow a learner as Rain Man when it comes to some things, but I’ve learnt one in January.

rain man

If you pick against Baltimore again, we’re not going to K-Mart!

With this in mind, I’m going to move on, and just give you a headfirst dive into the Super Bowl rabbit hole – with stats, perspectives and thoughts.  This game is full of them.  I’m going to avoid the Ray Lewis PED drama and his retirement until the offseason, and downplay the Brothers Harbaugh angle to take a look at some things that are more directly related to the on-field action that we’ll be drooling over because well, whoops, this Super Bowl starts late in the day and we’re already drunk, aren’t we?

Make of the thoughts what you may.  After all, isn’t one of the best parts of the Super Bowl the debates that build up to a good matchup?

Hopes for a non-blowout

Let’s take a look at the 16-year period starting with arguably the first true whooping in Super Bowl history that ended the 1985 season when the Bears beat the Patriots 46-10, up until the last time the Ravens won the Super Bowl, during the 2000 season by trouncing the Giants by a score of 34-7.  Those games were decided by an average margin of 19 points, the winning teams put up three 40-burgers and two fitty-burgers.  Close games were like a mirage.  Only four Super Bowls during that span were won by single digits, and just two of those – Niners over Bengals (20-16 during 1988) and Giants over Bills (20-19 during 1990) – were decided by less than a touchdown.

I blame this period – which took up much of my own childhood – for the silly state of Super Bowl parties today.  It became habitual to become disinterested in the game by halftime and find one’s attention span wandering.

Now, consider the eleven Super Bowls since that period – the Patriots’ first title that closed the 2001 season until present day.  That span saw only one true blowout, when he Buccaneers undressed the Raiders to the tune of 48-21.  There were only four games decided by double-digit points, and an awesome six out of the elven came down to less than five points.  Even better: Four of the last five Super Bowls have been decided on the final drive.

Hindsight can affect one’s memory, but amongst the ritualistic Super Bowl media buildup that tries to pit each and every matchup as decent or better, I recall an unspoken understanding between the lines that a blowout was lurking during that earlier period.  In recent years, there hasn’t been that same sense.  This season, the game looks great.  Fingers crossed….

To rock the house you need the rock

According to NFL Gameday, playoff teams that win the turnover battle by two or more are 110-2.  During the regular season the Niners and Ravens tied in turnover differential at +9.  Neither teams have dropped off in that department in the postseason, but Baltimore has been more opportunistic, albeit with an extra game played: They have a +5 differential.  San Francisco has a +2 mark.

Okay – a bit about the Harbaughs…

Discussing the head coaching prowess of Jim and John Harbaugh is now an exercise in pointing out the obvious.  As mentioned last week in What I Saw, Conference Championships, John has coached the Ravens to as many wins since he’s taken over the team as the Pats’ Bill Belichick has over that span, with a league-leading 63.

John’s younger brother Jim has made quite the impact himself, going 27-8-1 in just two seasons.  As mentioned on NFL Network’s Total Access, the only two head coaches with more wins in their first two seasons are George Siefert (32) and Barry Switzer (28).  Harbaugh’s record is much more impressive, considering that he took over a team mired in a streak of losing seasons, whereas we all know that Siefert and Switzer were handed already-proven championship teams in San Francisco and Dallas, respectively.

If history is any indication, expect John’s Ravens to give Jim’s Niners fits on Sunday.  On Thanksgiving Day in 2011, Baltimore beat San Francisco 16-6 in a slugfest.  The Ravens amassed nine sacks in that game – the most sacks given up in a game by a Harbaugh-coached Niners team.

I know it’s not What I Saw, but let’s give PROPS to brothers John and Jim Harbaugh for doing their last press conference prior to the big game together.  And more PROPS to both of them for crediting their mother for their competitive nature.  Are these guys are wound too tight before Super Sunday?  I think not.

…And a dash of Sugar

This Sunday’s Super Bowl will take place twelve years and six days after Ravens LB Ray Lewis was the MVP of Super Bowl 35.  According to NFL Media, only the late Junior Seau had a longer span between Super Bowls.

And, in an ironic (and metaphorical) sense, Lewis could leave the pro game the way he entered it: by nailing Jim Harbaugh.  That’s right – the first of Lewis’ 41.5 career sacks came in 1996 against the Colts when he took the current Niners head coach – and former NFL quarterback – to the turf.

In a sign of both mens’ longevity – and Harbaugh’s youth as a pro coach – Harbaugh was actually a teammate of Lewis’ in 1998, in Baltimore.

Because it’s the most reliable single stat to explain wins and losses this side of points scored

Niners QB Colin Kaepernick (105.9) and his counterpart Joe Flacco (114.7) of the Ravens have been the highest-rated passer in the 2012 playoffs.

Weighing in at 245 pounds, from University of Delaware…

Sometimes Ravens QB Joe Flacco is overrated, sometimes not.  But his success in these playoffs is impossible to deny.  Through three games he has 8 TDs and 0 INTs.  According to NFL.com, only five other quarterbacks have finished the playoffs with a mark that impressive: Drew Brees, Troy Aikman, Phil Simms, Steve Young and Joe Montana.  Each of those players not only won the Super Bowl – they were all named MVP.

There’s little doubt that Flacco needs to put up good numbers if Baltimore is going to win the game.  It’s possible that his team’s defense could nullify the San Francisco offense like it did New England’s a game ago, but the Ravens haven’t faced an option/pistol offense this season, and they were highly familiar with the Patriots.  If the Ravens can keep Niners LB Aldon Smith and the pass rush at bay, and their receivers can get space against San Fran’s defensive backs – two HUGE ifs – it will be up to Flacco to complete passes.  If he can’t, or doesn’t get a chance to, he’ll be doing the sad version of the postgame speech.

Weighing in at 230 pounds, from University of Nevada…

Niners QB Colin Kaepernick is only the fourth quarterback to start a Super Bowl in his first season as a starter.  The other three: Tom Brady, Kurt Warner and Vince Ferragamo.  Warner and Brady both won the big one that year.

It’s easy to argue that Kaepernick could be the key to the game because he can influence it in so many ways.  Obviously his dual threat capability gives defenses headaches, but the read-option offense puts him in a position to decide when and where many rushing plays occur, so he can directly affect the productivity of the running backs.  If he can control the clock with long drives it will gas the Ravens defense and take the opposing offense out of rhythm.  And, Kaepernick can beat you the old school way too – by cutting up defenses with long precision passes.

But the main threat Kaep poses – and the one that will dictate the mindset of Baltimore’s defense – is his speed to the outside edges, be it on designed runs or scrambles.  San Francisco’s last two games illustrated the damned if you do, damned if you don’t effect that the second-year pro can have on defensive schemes.  After running roughshod over the Packers for a QB-record 181 yards, the Falcons took that dimension away from Kaepernick’s game by favoring a containment strategy – which opened up passing windows due to zone coverage.  The kid responded with an impressive passing day in leading his team to the biggest comeback win in NFC Championship history.

With a superlative talent like Kaepernick, it might just be the case that the Ravens are relegated to hoping the QB beats himself.  We’ll see – so far he’s proven to be an exceptional student of the game, and unflappable.  What I like most about the guy – along with his gazelle-like grace and speed in the open field – is his mental approach.  He’s said numerous times (since, according to Sports Illustrated, he said it to his father when he got dropped off at the Manning Passing Academy as a young unknown) that there’s no reason to feel pressure or hope for good luck because preparation and hard work take care of those factors.  Still, Kaepernick is human; he’ll feel something different at the start of this game.  But if he’s true to his word, no one will have prepared more than he.

He’s got a tall order to live up to: During their 5-0 run in the Super Bowl, San Francisco quarterbacks have thrown 17 touchdowns and no interceptions.  Wow.

One last thought on Kaepernick’s rushing ability: As pointed out by NFL Media, Michael Vick has three rushes of 50-plus yards in his decade-long NFL career.  Kaep has had that many since Week 13.

Ace up the sleeve?

rounders ace tattoo

(Miramax Films)

(Still the best tattoo ever.  Unless you suck at cards.)

One of the fun parts of the Super Bowl minutiae is to find X-factors, underappreciated and unique potential keys to victory.

I mentioned above that the Ravens haven’t faced a dual threat QB like Niners QB Colin Kaepernick this season…. But they have seen one this week in practice.

Baltimore’s backup quarterback, Tyrod Taylor, was taken in the 2011 draft – the same one as Kaepernick, and as luck would have it, his 40-yard dash time (4.51 seconds) was the only time ran by a QB in that year’s scouting combine which was faster than Kaepernick’s.  Taylor rushed for over 650 yards in two separate seasons at Virginia Tech, but never ran much read-option, the scheme that Kaepernick and the Niners run so efficiently.  In that case, he obviously won’t be able to execute plays for the scout team with the same crispness that Kaepernick will on Sunday, but at least the Ravens know that they’ve gotten some good looks in practice to get them acclimatized to the speed that the San Fran pivot will bring to the game.

Screw getting fancy with the ace – the house wins with 20

In the last 23 games during which the Niners have scored 20 points or more they are 22-0-1.  (NFL.com) In fact, during the Jim Harbaugh era, San Francisco has lost only one game when scoring 20-plus – including the playoffs.  (That happened in Week 2 of last season, when the Cowboys and Tony Romo’s busted-up chest won 27-24 in overtime.)

Ball Yoda – influence the game, he will

Anyone familiar with TFQ’s What I Saw knows that I refer to Ravens S Ed Reed as Ball Yoda because he’s always around the football, as if he’s some sort of Jedi.

The playoffs are no exception.  Reed has eight career playoff interceptions – the most among active players (Atlanta’s Asante Samuel has seven), and one behind the NFL record shared by Ronnie Lott and three other players.  He’s also gone home for Super Sunday – he grew up in St. Rose, Louisiana, approximately 17 miles away from the Superdome – and even though Reed has stated publicly that he’s playing next year he has to know that this could be his last chance at that elusive ring.  His A-game should be in full effect.

Niners QB Colin Kaepernick had better not believe everything he sees when he looks downfield and sees open receivers, because Ball Yoda is one of the best baiters of QBs ever, and the ball just finds the future Hall Of Famer.  Even if Reed doesn’t pick off a pass, his presence downfield could serve to make Kaepernick hesitate ever so slightly and thus throw the offense off its rhythm.

The ground battle

I don’t think much needs to be said about Niners RB Frank Gore, because his head coach Jim Harbaugh and his teammates have been showering the 8-year pro with praise all season.  It feels like Gore is Robocop – held together by numerous repairs after serious injuries and surgeries dating back to a torn knee during his days at the University of Miami.  This year Gore is healthy, and he’s a huge factor for Sunday.  Read-option or not, the NFC Championship win against Atlanta was a reminder that when times get tough San Francisco won’t hesitate to stack the line of scrimmage and pound the rock with The Inconvenient Truth.

Keep an eye out for RB LaMichael James as well.  The rookie was held out of games until Week 13, but has shown incredible speed as a change-of-pace back for the Niners.

One last note on the San Fran ground game: Even if they don’t run the read-option out of the pistol, that formation presents problems for a defense because the tailback never lines up directly behind the quarterback with that much space behind the line of scrimmage to establish a running angle.  Defenders don’t like the formation because it’s almost impossible to anticipate which side a running play will go to, and the back is hard to spot after the snap, because the QB obscures the view.

On the other side, there’s Ravens RB Ray Rice, whose talents and increased impact since Jim Caldwell took over as offensive coordinator speak for themselves.

But the Niners have to worry about another guy now too.  In fact, according to NFL.com, RB Bernard Pierce has more rushing yards (401) than Rice does (397) since Caldwell started calling the plays.  I’ve wondered before if fired coordinator Cam Cameron didn’t give Rice the ball enough because of concerns about his durability and/or keeping him fresh.   Whether that’s true or not, with the emergence of Pierce Baltimore can give Rice a breather while still staying faithful to the game plan.  They’ll need fresh legs against the best front seven in football.

Damnit, Jim, I’m not a miracle worker!

Injuries often play a significant role in the Super Bowl.  Niners DL Justin Smith is the most significant injury concern for both teams, but his much-publicized triceps/elbow injury didn’t really diminish his impact against the Falcons as far as I could tell.  Beyond that, each team is hoping for solid play out of two banged-up linebackers in particular:

Ahmad Brooks, Niners – The most underrated of San Francisco’s four A-list ’backers missed the whole week of practice after the NFC Championship game due to an injured AC joint in his shoulder.  He’s practiced all week this week, and is apparently good to go.  If you don’t think that Brooks is a key player for the Niners (think Lance Briggs in Chicago as a comparison), consider what head coach Jim Harbaugh said about him when commenting to the San Francisco Chronicle about the 6-year, $44.5 million contract extension he received after last season:

Vic [Fangio, Niners defensive coordinator] made the comment the other day that the smartest thing we did as an organization was pay Ahmad.  We would all concur with that.  He’s done it [all] with very little fanfare.

Dannell Ellerbe, Ravens – Ellerbe is pretty banged-up, with a bad ankle and back that caused him to sit out two practices last week and take a cortisone shot.  He says he’s ready for Super Sunday.  Let’s hope so.  Baltimore’s second-leading tackler this season and Ray Lewis play critical roles as inside linebackers against the dreaded read-option fake.  It’s their job to slow-pursue the flow of each running play, follow the ball as best they can, and ideally make initial contact with the ballcarrier after teammates have forced QB Colin Kaepernick to decide to keep/give the ball away by favoring certain angles.  If Ellerbe is hobbled at all, it could be a long day for the Ravens watching the Niners run to that (weak) side.

It’s not child-proof, but it’s tough to open…right?

The performance of Falcons WR Julio Jones notwithstanding, the Niners defense is very tough to pass deep against.  On the other hand, Ravens WR Torrey Smith has been taking the top off of defenses throughout the playoffs.  It will be up to San Fran’s cornerbacks to keep Smith in front of them – something perennial All-Pro CB Champ Bailey couldn’t do in Denver.  (At all.)

Keep in mind that the Niners defense hasn’t been nearly as dominant in the passing game as they were for much of the season:

Niners Defense, 2012 Season – Including Playoffs

Weeks 1-14 Weeks 15-Conf. Final
PPG 14.2 28.8
YPG 275.5 391.4
Pass YPG 184.7 289.2
Third Down % 31.4 42.6

(NFL Network)

Note that a huge majority of the increased yardage allowed is attributed to the passing game…. They had better shore that up for Super Sunday, because Joe Flacco is white-hot.

If it’s up to the D, is it meant to be?

The Niners come into Sunday sporting the NFL’s number two scoring defense this season, giving up just 17.1 points per game.  The Ravens, on the other hand, were ranked 12th in that department, with 21.5.  According to NFL.com, teams with a top-two scoring defense have gone 16-5 when facing a non-top-two scoring defense.

They should have gone to the quad for some streaking

According to ESPN Stats & Information, no team has ever won the Super Bowl without at least three straight wins during the regular season.  Though the Niners won two in a row five times, they never pulled off the hat trick. old school-streaking

(DreamWorks)

Everybody’s doing it…

God, please don’t let it come down to this…

Much has been made of the struggles that Niners K David Akers has had this season – one season removed from setting the NFL single-season scoring record, no less.  Last week’s doink off of the upright against the Falcons didn’t exactly help to ease the nerves of San Francisco fans.  According to NFL Media, Akers is tied with a certain other kicker for the third-worst regular season FG percentage for a kicker playing in a Super Bowl that same season, with 69.0 percent.  That other kicker?  Scott Norwood for the Bills.  Eeek.

Scott Norwood

(Chris O’Meara, AP)

STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK FOR WHAT I SAW, SUPER BOWL EDITION – HERE AT TFQ.  IN THE MEANTIME, FOLLOW US ON FACEBOOK.

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One thought on “Super Bowl XLVII Preview (It’s 47. Drop the gladiatoresque numerals, already.)

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