Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Super Bowl Preview

This preview has been a serious struggle. Part of the problem is that it's hard to think clearly about a topic like the Super Bowl when you're being inundated with the stories about it on a daily basis. But the bigger issue is that it's impossible to objectively handicap a Super Bowl in which your favorite team is a participant. You might as well ask me to give you an honest assessment of the Fantasy Golf Report. Sure it sucks sometimes (and frankly, this feels like it could be one of those times) but I need to believe it's at least usually good and fortunately I have the support of the FGW (speaking of objective) and the random barroom friend or acquaintance who's had a enough beers to become openly complimentary.*

"MA!!! . . . THE MEATLOAF . . .
WE WANT IT NOW!!!"
Being a Ravens fan is much the same. Sure they're going to get blown-out on the road in Houston and eek-out a 9-6 win in Kansas City** every now and then but, for the most part, when the season has been on the line the last two years like the home game against the Giants or the second halves against the Broncos and the Patriots, the Ravens have delivered. The Super Bowl, however, is not some regular season home game against a reeling Giants team, a playoff game against a rookie quarterback or, for that matter, a road playoff game that no one expects you to win. Joe Flacco and the Ravens aren't sneaking-up on anybody this week, especially not the team led by the maniacal little brother of their own head coach.***

My week long search for a writing angle has led me to this. In an effort to offset my lack of objectivity, I'm going to go through the opinions of the 12 out of 23 ESPN "experts" who picked the 49ers to win and see if I can debunk the basis for each of their predictions. I figure that if I can do that with a semi-straight face, then I can justify my Ravens pick. Most of the "expert" opinions are based on the theory that, over the course of nine games, Jim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick have revolutionized football beyond anything accomplished by the likes of Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, Don Coryell and Dan Fouts or Rich Kotite and Ken O'Brien. Forgive me if I'm a little skeptical in light of the small sample size and the fact that the last good defense the 49ers played held them to 13 points. Then again, I'm no "expert" so let's hear what they have to say.

Chris Carter: 31-27 . . . "Kaepernick is going to run the ball a lot."***

Yeah but Kaepernick's really fast. It's
not like RG, III runs a 4.53. What?
4.38? Really? . . .  Never mind.
Good. Let him try. Anyone who has watched the Ravens during the Ray Lewis/Ed Reed era will tell you that it's the traditional drop-back passers with great accuracy that beat them (Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer and Phillip Rivers are the three primary Raven killers). The Ravens played against two of the best running quarterbacks in the league this year in Michael Vick and Robert Griffin, III and the combined for 68 yards on 17 carries with no touchdowns. Oh yeah, Vick barely made it out of the game in one piece . . . and RG, III didn't.

Trent Dilfer: 31-23 . . . "As conflicted as I am having to pick between two of my former teams ... both move the ball. The pistol allows the Niners to punch it in, while the Ravens are stuck kicking field goals."

Dilfer is one of the best analysts in the game but I have no idea where this theory came from. In their three playoff games, the Ravens have averaged 30 points on 12 touchdowns and 2 field goals. 11 of those touchdowns were scored by 6 different offensive players. I know this offense can't compare to the scoring machine he led to the title back in 2001 but come on Trent, give them a little credit.

Mike Ditka: 28-24 . . . "I like what Jim [Harbaugh] has done and how he's built the team. If the 49ers do not get a pass rush, they will be in trouble, but they have found a way to get it done all season."

Hey Mike, speaking of getting it done "all season," did you see any of the Seattle game in Week 16 where the 49ers got drubbed 42-13? Or how about the St. Louis game where they lost 16-13 in Week 13? You know what the Seahawks and the Rams have in common, they both play very physical defense . . . the Seahawks with a big hard hitting secondary and the Rams with a strong pass rush. The Ravens currently have both.

Herm Edwards: 27-24 . . . "The 49ers have too many options on offense that present problems for the Ravens. Even though Colin Kaepernick is young, sometimes being naive in a game like this is a good thing."

"But I was still only
on my first option."
Everyone was making that same statement two weeks ago about the Patriots. The "too many options on offense" argument makes little sense to me because (a) this isn't basketball where everyone touches the ball on the same play and (b) a strong pass rush limits a quarterback to at most two options. Again, show me the good defense that this offense has dominated. If you have Super Bowl aspirations and you're playing the Packers who just got torched by Christian Ponder for 37 points in week 17, you better score 45. And the Falcons defense doesn't scare anybody.

Getting back to the Patriots, the line on that game was 9.5 with an over/under of 51.5 meaning that Vegas foresaw a 31-21 Patriots' win. Then the Patriots put up 13 points and got shut-out in the second half so stop telling me that the Ravens defense is going to be overwhelmed when they just made the highest scoring team in the league look lost. That's ridiculous. 
 
Merril Hodge: 21-20 . . . "The core of the 49ers, the offensive and defensive lines, is the best in football. Colin Kaepernick has brought focus to their offense, but it's because they are so good in the trenches."

This is the one that does have me concerned because the 49ers offensive line is mammoth. However, if you're going to go with a one ton offensive line, then you have to be sacrificing some quickness which means gaps in pass protection. Obviously you can make-up for that by having a quarterback as athletic as Kaepernick but the Ravens are going bring an elite pass rusher from each side and get hands in his face. At least they better.  

Chris Mortensen: 24-17 . . . "Colin Kaepernick's composure has been the biggest surprise for me this postseason, and I don't think he's going to lose it on the NFL's biggest stage."

Neither do I but you can keep your composure and still lose. Andrew Luck never lost his composure against the Ravens in the first round and the Colts scored 9 points.

Jerry Rice: 24-17 . . . "The Niners will have a better defense, and Colin Kaepernick bringing so many different formations to the offense will present match-up problems for the Ravens."

Talk about a lack of objectivity. I think Rice's comment about the defense is the biggest misconception about this game and its based primarily on the fact that the 49ers had the second ranked scoring defense in the league (17.1 points per game) during the regular season. That stat can easily be attributed to the fact that they played almost half their games against some of the worst offenses in the league including the Cardinals (twice), Jets, Bills, Dolphins and the Bears with Jason Campbell at quarterback. They allowed an average of 6.5 points per game against the likes of Mark Sanchez and Kevin Kolb. Talk about padding your stats. I'm much more interested in how their defense has performed in the playoffs where they have given-up 24 points each to the offenses of the Packers and Falcons (the Packers also scored on a pick 6). It would have been more in the Falcons game if Matty Ice hadn't predictably melted in the second half.

Not sure that being nicknamed
"Ice" is necessarily good for your
long term career prospects.
Meanwhile, the Ravens defense is coming-off a stretch of seven and a half quarters on the road where they held the two highest scoring teams in the league to a total of 20 points (the Broncos also had a kick return touchdown to start the second half). The combined stat line for Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady against the Ravens in the playoffs is 3 touchdown passes, 5 interceptions and 2 fumbles. Is anyone paying attention to the fact that the Colt game was the first time Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Bernard Pollard played together this season? Or that maybe it took a few games to adjust after losing Pro Bowl cornerback Lardarius Webb? Sheesh.

Adam Schefter: 17-14 . . . "Two throwback teams playing a throwback game in which two undrafted free-agent kickers, David Akers and Justin Tucker, could decide the world championship."

Schefty predicts a 3 point game and then picks the team with the kicker who missed 13 field goals in the regular season and a huge 38 yarder against the Falcons over the team with the kicker who missed only 3 field goals in the regular season and made a 47 yarder off a frozen field to beat the Broncos in overtime. I think there was some Absinthe involved with that pick.  

Trey Wingo: 27-21 . . . "Kaepernick is the reason the 49ers will tie the Pittsburgh Steelers with an NFL-best six Lombardi trophies."

There is nothing there that we haven't covered already and every part of that statement makes me want to puke so let's move on.****

Mark Schlereth: 28-27 . . . "Offensively, Colin Kaepernick -- the dual threat and read-option -- will be too much."

Too much of anything
is never good.
Now we've just dispensed with analysis and gone with random generalizations. Too much what? Too much mayonnaise? Too much cowbell? (I'm starting to get a bit punchy. Time to wrap this up).

Hannah Storm: 28-21 . . . "Nobody's been able to disarm the pistol offense yet. Colin Kaepernick is king of New Orleans."

Nobody since Seattle way back in week 16 that is. But in the three games since that one, against spotty defenses it's true, nobody's been able to disarm the pistol offense so I guess it's unstoppable. 

Marcellus Wiley: 40-19 . . . "Colin Kaepernick and his decision-making can't be stopped. Try and stop him, Frank Gore runs up the score."

OK. Now I'm getting weary. That final score is just stupid and so is the comment that a person's "decision-making" can't be stopped. I'm pretty sure that the only way you can stop someone's "decision-making" is by knocking them unconscious and, as much as I want the Ravens to win this game, I'm not willing to go that far (at least not in writing). And Frank Gore runs up the score? You mean the same Frank Gore who, before he played the sieve run defenses of the Packers and the Falcons in the playoffs, hadn't gained over 100 yards in a game since week 7. Bring it. 

In the end, you can throw all of that analysis out the window because this game is going to be decided by about five big plays. A Flacco to Torrey Smith bomb, a LeMichael James run (maybe the guy who scares me the most), a Jacoby Jones return, a Vernon Davis catch and run up the seam or an Ed Reed pick six. When I look at these two teams, I just see more Ravens who can make that impact play. I also agree with the simple take of Suzy Kolber who picked the Ravens: "Lightning in a bottle season." From your lips to Ray Lew . . . I mean God's ears Suzy.

I drew a 7 and a 1 in the Super Bowl square poll so the prediction is:

Ravens - 27 . . . Niners - 21 which means it's time to START WEARING PURPLE, WEARING PURPLE . . .

Endnotes

* My favorite is,"I love it but to be honest, I really only look at the pictures and read the captions" which is pretty much like telling a woman that she's beautiful with a view of nothing but her ass.

** I was watching Real Sports on HBO and they replayed a feature that Andrea Kramer had done two years ago during a Harbaugh family trip to Gettysburg (complete with the requisite shots of John and Jim looking out over the battlefield discussing military strategy). Jim tells Andrea that, next to his wife, his dad and his brother are his best friends (but he stops short of saying they are his only friends). John tells the story of Jim calling him from his driveway at 6:00 a.m. when he was working as a low-level assistant for the Raiders. As the story goes, Jim told John that he woke-up in his car and he didn't know whether he had just come home from work or was on his way to work. The camera cut-away just in time to miss Andrea Kramer rolling her eyes.

*** These are not excerpts. This is what each expert put out there to support his or her pick - ESPN Expert Picks. They've added more since I started writing this but I had to cut it off so I could post this piece and start drink . . . go to church.

Kate Upton. Game changer.
**** Trey Wingo also dropped this line the other day on the radio, "the key is 20 points . . . when the 49ers have held opponents to 20 points or less, they are 8-1." That could be the most useless statistic ever considering that the Ravens are 8-0 this season in games where they held their opponent to 20 points or less. This is what's called the Low Scoring Opponent Theory which states that, if your opponent has a low score, your chances of winning are increased. I think about seven chapters of Moneyball are devoted to this.