This year’s Superbowl is filled with human interest storylines: The Harbaugh family feud, the rise of Colin Kaepernick, and of course Ray Lewis’ swan song. There’s no denying that these stories add a different, more emotional element to arguably the biggest spectacle in all of sports, but after two weeks of the most cringe-worthy press conferences between John and Jim Harbaugh (Oh, have I mentioned they’re brothers… of course you’ve probably heard this a thousand times in the last 48 hours), not to mention over a dozen ‘inspirational’, even more cringe-worthy videos of Ray Lewis blubbering on national television, it’s now time to focus on the game itself. And trust me, it has all the makings of a classic.
Through the years virtually every Superbowl winning team has faced tough decisions and needed to overcome adversity en route to being crowned a champion. Both the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers were forced to make season altering moves earlier in the season and both have been major reasons why they have made it to New Orleans. Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers team’s defining moment came in week 10 when starting Quarterback Alex Smith was lost to injury. The following week, second-year Quarterback Colin Kaepernick made his first professional start and put the rest of the NFL on notice with an outstanding display against the Chicago Bears. Kaepernick hasn’t looked back since, leading San Francisco to the sport’s biggest stage due to his revolutionary Read-Option offense. While Kaepernick may be inexperienced (he’s only started 9 games so far in his career), he’s already proven himself to be very cool under pressure. After throwing a pick-six on the first play of the divisional game against the Packers, he bounced back and had one of the most dominant Quarterback performances in recent playoff history. Then of course there was the NFC Championship game against Atlanta. After being down 17-0 in a hostile environment, the former Nevada man orchestrated an excellent comeback to send his team to the Superbowl.
Baltimore’s season defining moment also came in the form of a personnel change. This time however, it came on the sidelines as the franchise decided to replace Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron with former Indianapolis Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell. Time and again Cameron had been made the scapegoat for the Ravens’ offensive shortcomings. One of the biggest problems for Baltimore fans was that Cameron often neglected the running game, despite having one of the game’s best backs in Ray Rice. Under Cameron, the Ravens only ran the ball 25.7 times per game. This figure has increased by ten over the last six games, with the Ravens averaging 155.3 rushing yards per game. The added emphasis on the rushing attack has opened up more opportunities for Quarterback Joe Flacco to throw downfield, an area he excels in. So far in the playoffs, Flacco has completed 15 passes of 20+ yards and five of 40+. It will be interesting to see how San Francisco’s corners deal with the contrasting receiving duo of the speedy Torrey Smith and the physical presence of Anquan Boldin. If Flacco can connect downfield early, the 49ers Safeties will be forced to help out in coverage, allowing Tight End Dennis Pitta to be free in the slot.
Perhaps the most exciting matchup to watch in this game will be how the rejuvenated Offensive line of the Ravens will handle the relentless pass rush of San Francisco. Baltimore’s line has seen a huge improvement with the addition of veteran Left Tackle Bryant McKinnie to the line-up. After dealing with injury early in the year, McKinnie has found his old, pro-bowl calibre form and his presence has allowed Michael Oher to move back to his natural position at Right Tackle. McKinnie will most likely be facing Aldon Smith, the player who was Jim Harbaugh’s first ever draft pick in the NFL (seventh overall in 2011 out of the University of Missouri). Smith has been one of the league’s most feared pass rushers over the last two seasons, totalling an outstanding 33.5 sacks. However, it’s worth noting that Smith’s form usually depends on whether or not Defensive Lineman Justin Smith (no relation) is also in the line-up. The latter Smith is such a terror on the line that he often draws double-teams by opponents, allowing Aldon to get to the Quarterback unchallenged. In fact, out of all of Aldon Smith’s 33.5 career sacks, only one of them has come when Justin Smith has been out.
I usually hate using clichés (for the last three years I’ve been told they’re a journalistic no-no), but the phrase “defence wins championships” seems fitting for this game. Both sides have built a reputation over years of being outstanding defensive teams. On the defensive side of the ball both teams have numerous Pro-Bowl calibre and even future Hall of Fame level players: Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Patrick Willis, the two Smiths etc. During the regular season the 49ers ranked second in the NFL in scoring defence and allowed just 17.1 points per game. And have been excellent at defending the run in the postseason, giving up a mere 92.5 yards per game on the ground. If the Ravens are to win this game, they’ll need to have success running the ball against outstanding linebackers Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman. That’s a big ask.
History has been kind to both sides in the Superbowl. The two teams have a perfect record when playing in the game, although Baltimore have only competed in it once, compared to the five previous appearances by the 49ers. Colin Kaepernick will have to try and emulate the success of two former 49ers Quarterbacks, Joe Montana and Steve Young, two of the greatest in the history of the game. So there’s no pressure. Also, I can’t help but notice that Kaepernick’s rise to stardom this season mirrors that of former Superbowl champion Quarterbacks such as Tom Brady (in 2001), Kurt Warner(1999) and Jeff Hostetler of the 1990 New York Giants. All three of those players led their team to the Lombardi trophy after replacing injured veterans. Flacco also has a favourable omen. So far in the playoffs he has thrown eight touchdown passes and no interceptions. The only other Quarterbacks to do that are Joe Montana, Steve Young, Phil Simms, Troy Aikman and Drew Brees. All those players went on to win the Superbowl MVP that year. So, again, no pressure.
I know I cracked jokes about Ray Lewis in my introduction, but in all seriousness there’s very few players in the NFL I’ve ever had more respect for. He is undoubtedly one of the all-time greats and seeing him close out his career with a win in the Superbowl would be a fairytale ending. Also, let’s not forget Ed Reed and Randy Moss, two guaranteed Hall of Famers and two of the greatest to play their positions who have achieved almost every honour there is in the sport, other than Superbowl champion. While the majority of neutral fans will be cheering for a Ravens upset, I just think San Francisco has too much for this Baltimore team.
Prediction: San Francisco 49ers 27-20 Baltimore Ravens.