Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore —
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door —
Only this and nothing more.”
~Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven, January, 1845
These current 2013 Baltimore Ravens are much like the fowl muse in Poe’s classic poem from 168 years ago: many teams underestimate them—“only this and nothing more”—yet here they are rapping on the window, ever-persistent, on the verge of their second Super Bowl title.
No one considers them a Cinderella, mind you. They’re a solid team with an explosive, if not consistent, offense. Their fabled defense, while decent enough, is running more on emotion and reputation, much like their retiring leader, Ray Lewis. Sure, they were expected to make a bit of noise in this, the 2013 playoffs, but suffice to say no one had them going this far.
To wit, they’ve knocked off not one, but two veteran teams with Hall of Fame QB’s, the Denver Broncos (Peyton Manning) and the New England Patriots (Tom Brady). Two young, up-and-coming QB’s will serve as bookends to their playoff run, as they commenced the post season by knocking off rookie phenom Andrew Luck, and will wrap things up humbling the dynamic Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers. Here’s why.
Last Spring, Ravens QB Joe Flacco famously told reporters that he felt he was the best in the league, and naturally the sports world literati went nuts.
When Flacco is on his game, he’s one of the better at his position, but the best? Eh…not sure. When he’s bad, he’s abysmal. A bad game for Tom Brady? Oh, let’s say it’s 249 yards, 2 TD’s, 3 INT’s.
Flacco, on the other hand, manages to set records for futility when he’s having an off day. Against the Texans this year, he posted a 0.3 QBR score (ESPN’s highly regarded metric for quarterback play). As in 0.3 on a 1-100 scale.
It’s a new day around the Chesapeake Bay, however, as Baltimore has found its groove, with new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell calling the shots, er, plays. At home, on the road, it hasn’t mattered: the Ravens offense is consistently playing to their explosive potential. In fact, they opened the playoffs setting franchise records for offensive output, with 439 yards (Colts) and 479 yards (Broncos).
Their numbers against the Patriots were more modest, but their large second half lead negated the need for any stat-stuffing.
San Francisco hangs its hat on defense, but LB Patrick Willis and his other five All Pro mates have struggled a bit, only tightening up when they had to. Sure, they made plays against Atlanta in the second half of the NFC title game, but anyone who watched the Falcons have their way with them to the tune of a 17-0 lead has to feel that the Niners are vulnerable.
Stalwarts Justin Smith and Aldon Smith—key to the once-feared pass rush—haven’t been themselves as of late. The former Smith is nursing a triceps injury. CBS Sports’ Clark Judge theorizes the latter may be masking a hidden, unpublicized ailment, as he hasn’t had a sack in five games.
If Baltimore were their previously inconsistent selves, San Francisco could find a way to cobble together a winning game plan. But if you can’t rattle Flacco, then he’s going to post big numbers, no matter who your cornerbacks are, as WR’s Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith are both playing at a high level.
This side of the ball for the Ravens has been garnering attention, sure, but it’s more because of brash quotes and that whole “Ray Lewis thing” (for those who’ve lived under a rock, he’s retiring after the game). Their stymieing of the Pats was more about New England beating themselves; this wasn’t a re-channeling of that 2000 squad. Other than that, Baltimore has been winning shootouts, thanks to that well-oiled machine of an offense.
It’s “bend, don’t break” for Ray Lewis & Co., and that’s working just fine. The conundrum in New Orleans will be how to stop the flavor du jour of the NFL, the read option, or “the Pistol.” QB Colin Kaepernick is a threat on the ground and through the air.
Try to defend him traditionally? He’ll burn you with his legs, as the Green Bay Packers found out. If you opt to gear the defense to contain him, you’re vulnerable to the traditional running game and short passing attack. Just ask the Falcons defense, which was helpless against RB Frank Gore and TE Vernon Davis.
So yes, the 49ers will get their points. Trouble is, it won’t be enough. For about two years, the rub against San Francisco has been that they aren’t built to come back from behind. Well, they dispelled that notion against Atlanta. However, this Ravens offense is more formidable than the nascent Falcons’, and this won’t be an issue of coming from behind: it’ll be a matter of keeping pace in a shootout. San Fran simply isn’t ready.
San Francisco is having issues with their kicker, the historically reliable David Akers. He was a dismal 29-42 this season, and he also missed a key shot in the Atlanta game. The team released insurance policy Billy Cundiff, and perhaps too soon. If this game follows the predicted path and is a shootout, those field goals will matter.
Baltimore has the electric Jacoby Jones, a Pro Bowler who returned 38 kicks for over 1,000 yards…and he didn’t even play his role the entire season. He took over in week six.
Their kicker is the super reliable Justin Tucker, a rookie who missed only three times this year. San Francisco features Ted Ginn and LaMichael James, two players you don’t want to go to sleep on, sure. But they don’t inspire the game changing fear that Jones does.
All analysis aside, it has to be mentioned that San Francisco simply keeps finding ways to win. Heck, they’re five point favorites in Vegas. They shape shift, almost. One week, they’re defensive juggernauts, the next they’re the reincarnation of the 1989 Niners. Defense not themselves? QB with less that 10 starts to his credit? “Pfft, no big deal.” Will they prove this writer wrong and pull off the victory?
Not if the Ravens play the game they’re capable of; not if Poe was right:
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
Final Score: Baltimore 31, San Francisco 24
Super Bowl at a Glance: Kickoff is 3:30 pm, PST, CBS…New Orleans is the host city for the 10th time, the venue being the newly christened ‘Mercedes-Benz’ Superdome…San Francisco is 5-0 in Super Bowl appearances, with a win in the Big Easy to their credit (SB XXIV, a 55-10 drubbing of the Broncos)…Baltimore is 1-0 in the big game…Obligatory mention: this is the first Super Bowl to feature two brothers facing off as coaches, Jim and John Harbaugh.