Super Bowl XLVII, between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers, has the potential to be one of the greatest Super Bowls in recent years — not just because of the level of play these teams have demonstrated in the playoffs, but mostly because of the story lines all over the field.
Ray Lewis, one of the greatest linebackers in history, will play his final NFL game, retiring after 17 seasons, hoping to win his second Super Bowl ring, making a return to the big stage after 12 years. The 49ers’ head coach, Jim Harbaugh, was Lewis’ teammate in the late 90′s, not to mention the brother of the head coach on the opposite side, John Harbaugh.
There’s the obvious quarterbacks angle: Colin Kaepernick, beginning the season as the backup to Alex Smith and emerging as an explosive runner and very patient and accurate passer in the playoffs, and Joe Flacco possibly proving he’s part of the elite group of QBs in the NFL after years of criticism. One of the two — Randy Moss (49ers) and Ed Reed (Ravens) — will finally win a Super Bowl ring.
The 49ers enter the Super Bowl as the favorites, but as you can see by the roads both teams have taken to the big game (see the infographic below), there isn’t that much of a difference between them in quality.
This is probably the best ingredient to make sure Super Bowl 47 will be among the most exciting we’ve seen in recent years.
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Harbaugh Bowl, Harbowl, Harbaughl, Brobowl, SuperBaugh or my own personal favorite, Super Bowl XLVII. Whatever you want to call it, come Sunday the only thing that will matter will be what happens on the field between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens in New Orleans. With that in mind, here's how the teams will match up against each other this Sunday.
Baltimore Ravens offense vs San Francisco 49ers defense
The Baltimore Ravens' expectations have changed on offense since the beginning of this playoff journey. The Ravens were the 10th-best scoring offense in the regular season, but their production from week-to-week fluctuated dramatically throughout. But those regular season statistics mean next to nothing for the Ravens after sweeping through the AFC playoff bracket scoring 90 points in three games.
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (Click Image To Enlarge)
Much of that is due to quarterback Joe Flacco once again bringing a greater level of consistency, composure and focus to the field in the post-season. Flacco's individual performances have improved significantly for multiple reasons, but maybe the most publicized is the impact of Jim Caldwell. Caldwell took over the offensive co-ordinator role from Cam Cameron at the beginning of December. He has improved the offense in almost every conceivable way. The Ravens' play-calling is less predictable, the execution is sharper than it was under Cameron and Caldwell has an understanding of how to best utilize his weapons, something Cameron consistently failed to do.
Flacco's statistical production has sky-rocketed in the playoffs. He has completed just 54.8% of his passes, but thrown for 853 yards with eight touchdowns and zero interceptions.
However, the Ravens' three playoff victories so far have come against less than stellar defensive opposition. The Indianapolis Colts' defense ranked 21st in points allowed during the regular season. A soft regular season schedule juked the statistics for the Denver Broncos defense, while on the day they played the Ravens, Champ Bailey had maybe the worst game of his career and Rahim Moore failed to make a routine play that would have ended the Ravens' season. A poor Patriots defense awaited in the Championship game, and a very limited Chandler Jones and injured Aqib Talib turned that poor unit into a downright awful one.
In the Super Bowl, the Ravens will face a much stiffer challenge.
For the past two seasons the San Francisco 49ers have ranked second in the NFL in points allowed. They are the most physically intimidating group in the league and the most consistent from week-to-week. The unit combines a rare mixture of superstars leading the way, with high quality depth throughout the whole defensive depth chart and the type of coaching that keeps every player clued into their responsibilities on every single play. Unlike the Colts, rarely does this unit need to be bailed out by their offense. Unlike the Broncos, this defense doesn't need a soft schedule to rank amongst the very best in the league. Unlike the Patriots, one or two injuries to key players won't stop them from being competitive.
Chicago Bears quarterback Jason Campbell (2) is sacked by San Francisco 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith (99) as defensive tackle Justin Smith (94). These two have terrorized opposing quarterbacks during the 2012 regular season (Click Image To Enlarge)
For the first time this post-season, the Ravens offense will face a defense of equal or arguably greater talent and depth. The Ravens may have Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and Dennis Pitta, but the 49ers have Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. The Ravens can add Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin and Jacoby Jones, but the 49ers can counter with Carlos Rogers, Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown. This balance of superstars and depth is going to force the Ravens offense to be creative. With two weeks to prepare, the responsibility falls on Caldwell to introduce that creativity.
Flacco's production for the Ravens has primarily come on throwing the ball downfield. He is averaging over nine yards per completion, while Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones are averaging over 22 yards per reception in the playoffs. Even Anquan Boldin and Ray Rice are averaging over 17 yards per catch. According to Pro Football Focus, Flacco throws over 25% of his attempts further than 20 yards downfield and has completed over 50% of those during the playoffs. That won't intimidate the 49ers. Through a combination of an excellent pass rush and quality coverage, the 49ers only gave up 38 passes of more than 20 yards during the regular season, good enough for third fewest in the league. Of course, during the regular season you don't see a player like Torrey Smith every week. Smith has the speed to beat any defensive back in the NFL on any given play. However, that speed is only valuable when teams leave him in one-on-one situations like the Denver Broncos did in the Divisional round. The 49ers don't typically expose themselves like that, nor are they under pressure to inadvertently do so by focusing elsewhere.
Atlanta Falcons' superstar wide receiver Julio Jones was able to expose the 49ers' deep coverage in the NFC Championship game. Jones finished the game with 11 receptions for 182 yards and two touchdowns. However in the second half he only had three receptions for 23 yards before catching a 24 yard pass on the final play against prevent coverage. It took a monumental effort from Jones to take over the first half of that game, but once the 49ers adjusted their coverage his way in the second half, he was limited to short gains. With two weeks to prepare, they should take the same approach towards Smith. When teams do that, they expose themselves to Dennis Pitta, Jacoby Jones and Anquan Boldin. Boldin and Pitta are able to overpower most defensive backs/linebackers in single coverage, while Jones is always a threat to go deep with his speed. However, Boldin and Pitta won't be able to bully the 49ers' defenders the way they have most this post-season. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are two of the most physically intimidating coverage linebackers in the league, not to mention the two best all-around inside linebackers in the NFL. Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are big-bodied safeties who can run and hit in space, while cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers play consistently physical football. Jones was able to expose the 49ers' physical approach in the NFC Championship game, but outside of Smith, who the defense can focus their coverage on, none of the receivers present the same matchup nightmare that Jones' athleticism and straight line speed did.
The receivers should be able to get some success – they are still a talented group - but will it be enough? An obvious solution would be to run the ball, but that will be playing into a 49ers strength. Jim Caldwell must get creative with his receivers to free them from the 49ers' secondary. Maybe more importantly, he must also be creative in how he approaches running the ball.
Ray Rice, arguably the best all-around running-back in the NFL, and explosive rookie Bernard Pierce have combined to create a very productive rushing attack in the playoffs so far. Pierce is a home-run hitter who has longs of 78 and 43 yards in this season's playoffs. Although he is averaging more per carry in the playoffs than Rice, Rice's ability to make defenders miss in space and his receiving talents could see him become the focal point of the whole offense. Rice has been featured prominently in the offense since Caldwell became the offensive co-ordinator, but hasn't produced to his potential. Excluding the final week of the regular season when he was rested for most of the game, Rice has averaged 22.6 touches (receptions + rushes) for 94 yards per game since Caldwell was promoted. The last time he faced the 49ers, he had similarly ordinary-looking numbers, finishing the game with 24 combined touches for 83 yards, although that game was called by former co-ordinator Cam Cameron. On the biggest of stages however, teams typically look towards their biggest performers to carry them to glory. While it doesn't always work out that way, Caldwell should still gameplan to ride Rice as much as possible.
The 49ers' front seven is a special group, led by all-pro defensive end Justin Smith. Smith is the kind of interior defensive lineman that plays so fast it often appears he knows what play the offense is running before the ball is even snapped. He has the ability to stack blockers at the line of scrimmage while still stopping running-backs up the middle and his ability to chase down plays designed to run away from his area of the field. Smith has been dealing with a serious triceps injury, but it hasn't affected his ability to stop the run in recent weeks. In New Orleans he will have a very favourable matchup against the inexperienced Kelechi Osemele. Osemele is a rookie right tackle who recently became the Ravens' starting left guard. His ability to contain Smith, even with double team help, will play a major role in deciding the outcome. As a tackle, Osemele is better in space rather than fighting off bigger defenders at the point of attack. Therefore, it makes sense that the Ravens will look to put Rice in space with short passes taking the play away from Smith. Rice consistently turns short passes into big gains, not just that famous fourth down in San Diego.
San Francisco 49ers offense vs Baltimore Ravens defense
Just like the Ravens offense, not a huge can be learned from the 49ers' regular season statistics. With Alex Smith starting the first 10 games of the year, the 49ers not only had a different quarterback under center, but also a less aggressive offense as a whole and a completely different schematic approach. Having replaced Smith with second year professional Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers offense went from a conservative unit working hard to adequately complement a dominant defense, to an offense that has all the capabilities of blowing out an opponent.
Kaepernick barely played as a rookie and has only started nine games this season. In fact, outside of two quarterbacks forced to start because of injury, Jeff Hostetler and Vince Ferragamo, Kaepernick has the fewest starts of any quarterback to start in Super Bowl history. Theoretically, Kaepernick's inexperience should work against him in this game. However, his track record says otherwise. Kaepernick made his debut in Week 11 of the regular season in a convincing victory over one of the best defenses in the league, the Chicago Bears, on Monday Night Football. A few weeks later, he made his Sunday Night Football debut against the New England Patriots in Foxboro. Kaepernick threw for four touchdowns and had the game wrapped up by the end of the third quarter. He did make a nervous start to his playoff debut, throwing an interception on his first drive against the Green Bay Packers, but after that he led his offense to a 45 point day with four total touchdowns and over 400 total yards. In the NFC Championship game, the Atlanta Falcons sold out to stop Kaepernick from running and keep him in the pocket. By doing that they allowed the rest of the 49ers offense to produce, before Kaepernick threw the offense to a comeback victory in the second half.
The 49ers' young quarterback has the ability to beat the Ravens with his arm or his legs, or a combination of the two. However, when it comes to stopping the 49ers' offense, the Ravens must remain disciplined and not focus too much on Kaepernick. That was the downfall of the Atlanta Falcons, as they allowed Frank Gore and LaMichael James to combine for three easy rushing touchdowns at the cost of containing Kaepernick. Considering the Packers did the opposite, allowing Kaepernick to run for 181 yards with only six coming after contact, the Ravens must find a balance between the approaches.
Stopping the 49ers offense begins with stopping the run. Gore, Kaepernick, James and Anthony Dixon have have combined for 472 yards and seven touchdowns on just 72 carries in the playoffs. If the 49ers were any ordinary rushing team, the fact the Ravens are giving up 128.3 yards per game in the playoffs would be key, but the 49ers run the ball unlike any other team in the NFL. Kaepernick has the option to take the ball and run with it himself on many of the 49ers' running plays. The 49ers also have the most dominant offensive line in the league. No other team in the league combines that level of talent in the trenches and at the quarterback position when it comes to running the ball.
Much of the 49ers' running success comes from the option offense: the key aspects of this are that the offensive line deliberately doesn't block the last defender to one side of the field. Instead of blocking that defender, the quarterback reads and reacts to what he does after the snap. If the defender moves inside, the quarterback takes the ball away from the running-back and sprints outside. If the defender stays outside, the quarterback gives it to the running-back who runs up the middle against less defenders. This offense puts a huge amount of pressure on the defensive linemen and outside linebackers. The Ravens tend to flip between a 4-3 and 3-4 formation, but should primarily play 3-4 in this game to counter the 49ers' running game. The 3-4 will allow the Ravens to keep three of 340 lb defensive end Haloti Ngata, 340 lb nose tackle Terrence Cody, 315 lb defensive end Arthur Jones and 345 lb nose tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu on the field as often as their fitness allows, while Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger primarily start as outside linebackers. On any given option play, one outside linebacker will be left unblocked and it will be that player's responsibility to contain Kaepernick. Presuming he contains Kaepernick, the Ravens' big bodies inside must then swallow Gore by beating the 49ers' excellent offensive linemen. That is the best way to stop the option, but it requires discipline. The Atlanta Falcons attempted the same approach in the NFC Championship game, but they didn't have the talent or size on their defensive line to stop Gore and the team's other backs. The Ravens will feel comfortable asking their defensive linemen to make plays consistently enough to contain the 49ers offense in those situations.
What makes the 49ers offense so dangerous, is that even if the Ravens successfully stop the run, Kaepernick has proven capable of connecting with his receivers consistently from the pocket. During the regular season, Kaepernick completed over 62% of his passes for 1,814 yards, with 10 touchdowns and only three interceptions. In the last two playoff games, he has further improved to 63.5%, 496 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. The 49ers may have lost explosive wide receiver Mario Manningham to injury earlier in the season, but Michael Crabtree emerged into a star receiver when Kaepernick came into the offense, a 35-year-old Randy Moss has made a number of receptions in the playoffs and tight end Vernon Davis awoke in the playoffs after slumbering through the regular season.
The 49ers' receiving options are horrible matchups for an injury-plagued Ravens' defense. Superstar cornerback Lardarius Webb would have been the perfect matchup for Crabtree. Webb is probably the best tackler in space in the whole league and Crabtree does most of his best work running after the catch, 626 of his 1,281 yards on the season came that way, but Webb tore his ACL earlier this year and hasn't played since the regular season. Cary Williams, a solid but not great cornerback, will likely take on the responsibility of stopping Crabtree depending on the health of Jimmy Smith. The Ravens are also without starting inside linebacker Jameel McClain because of injury. McClain is more consistent in coverage than his replacement Dannell Ellerbe, while being much more athletic than Ray Lewis at this point in their respective careers. Lewis is too slow to cover Vernon Davis, while the Ravens likely won't trust Ellerbe or Bernard Pollard to do it consistently. Those injuries will force the Ravens to play a lot of zone coverage because they simply can't match the athletic ability of the 49ers' weapons.
Ravens cornerback Cary Williams, center, celebrates his interception and touchdown with teammates cornerback Lardarius Webb, left, and defensive back James Ihedigbo during the second half against the Browns (Click Image To Enlarge)
Since Kaepernick became the starter, the 49ers have only been held under 24 points twice. Both times they faced off against talented defenses who played disciplined football on the day. However, even in those games, against the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks, Kaepernick only turned the ball over twice. One of those turnovers was a missed pitch that was recovered in the endzone by the Rams' Janoris Jenkins, but Kaepernick was also forced into a safety in that game. The Rams were able to pressure Kaepernick into making two game-changing plays because they were disciplined and aggressive. That is the style the Ravens need in order to win this game. Game-changing defensive plays do come from pressure more often than not, but the Ravens normally look to Ed Reed for their game-changing defensive plays. Reed has had a relatively quiet season - dealing with a torn labrum in his shoulder hasn't helped - but he has proven to be a big-game player.
San Francisco 49ers defensive back Perrish Cox, Michael Thomas and Darcel McBath answer questions during media day for the NFL Super Bowl XLVII football game Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, in New Orlean (Click Image To Enlarge)
There are two contrasting matchups within this game. The Ravens offense needs to get creative and knock the 49ers defense off balance. The 49ers offense knows exactly what it is going to do, as does the Ravens defense. One side should see plenty of creativity, while the other will simply come down to who can execute better on the day.
After kicker Billy Cundiff prematurely ended the Ravens' 2011 season, he was promptly replaced by rookie Justin Tucker. For one so inexperienced, Tucker has consistently shown up when the Ravens needed him this year: in Week 3, he kicked the game-winning field goal against the New England Patriots as time ran out, he kicked all of the team's points in a 9-6 victory in Week 5 against the Kansas City Chiefs, he kicked a game-tying field goal with three minutes to go against the Chargers in Week 12 before kicking the game-winner in overtime. Most importantly, he kicked the game winning field goal in overtime against the Denver Broncos from 47 yards in the divisional round of the playoffs. Tucker only missed three kicks all season, none of which came when the Ravens were tied or behind, and also set franchise records.
49ers' kicker David Akers is in a different place entirely. Akers has dealt with different injury issues throughout the season, which have led to him having his worst ever season. The 49ers have stuck with Akers, keeping faith that he would return to his record breaking form of 2012 in time for the Super Bowl. In 2012, Akers set the record for points and tied the record for the longest field goal ever kicked.
As NFL Network's Rich Eisen will tell you, punters are people too. Not only are they people, but they are very important players even if they are rarely appreciated by fans. Both of these teams understand the value of a quality punter. Andy Lee has been considered a valuable weapon in San Francisco for some time now. Sam Koch isn't on the same level as Lee in terms of leg power or accuracy, but he has been a consistently reliable performer.
Jacoby Jones vaulted the Ravens' special teams returns to the top of this year's rankings, as well as adding three touchdowns. Jones' ability to break free at any moment could make the difference in a tight game, but Ted Ginn and LaMichael James offer similar potential to the 49ers' special teams. James and Ginn have incredible straight line speed, while Jones has the elusiveness to make defenders miss in open space.
Jim and John Harbaugh first faced off against each other back in November 2011, when John's Ravens came out on top in Baltimore. That was the first time in NFL history that two brothers competed against each other as head coaches. Obviously that means that this is the first time ever that two brothers will face off against each other in the Super Bowl. This being the Super Bowl, most of the focus will be on the Harbaugh family and the relationship between the siblings. Once the game begins little of that will matter.
Head Coach Jim Harbaugh of the San Francisco 49ers embraces his brother Head Coach John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens prior to the game at M&T Bank Stadium, Nov. 24, 2011, in Baltimore (Click Image To Enlarge)
The eldest of the brothers, John, has much more experience as a head coach at this level of football and at this time of the year. Since he was appointed head coach in 2008, John's Ravens have made the playoffs every season. The consistency of the team from season-to-season has been incredible, resulting in a 54-26 record in the regular season and an astonishing 8-4 record in the playoffs. It's difficult to fathom years later, but John was actually the Ravens' second choice to be their head coach after Jason Garrett initially turned the opportunity down. John was almost unknown to fans, who were disappointed not to sign the highly thought of Garrett. His career had been spent primarily coaching special teams, with little specialty as an offensive or defensive coach. Instead, Harbaugh brought accountability, discipline and an ability to unify a locker-room. It is that part of his coaching that Ravens players pointed to as the reason they made the Super Bowl this year.
What Jim Harbaugh lacks in coaching experience, he makes up for in expertise. Jim has only been an NFL head coach for two seasons, but he also started 140 games as an NFL quarterback, developed an extensive relationship with Bill Walsh (a coach who played a major role in developing the passing ideals that many teams live on in today's NFL) and a very successful four-year stint as head coach at Stanford. That expertise has allowed Harbaugh to turn the 49ers from a 6-10 team in 2010, into a team with a regular season record of 24-7 over the past two seasons, two NFC Championship games and now a Super Bowl.
Much like his brother, Jim is able to unite his players and get the very best out of them. Although he is known for his work developing quarterbacks, most notably Andrew Luck, and the rebirth of Alex Smith's career from 2011 onwards in the NFL, Jim has also elevated the 49ers' defense into arguably the best unit in the league. The 49ers ranked 16th in points allowed during the final season of Mike Singletary's reign, but since then they have finished second in both of Jim's seasons as head coach. He and his staff's ability to identify key free agents such as Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers, while drafting/developing key contributors Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman and Chris Culliver allowed the defense to grow around superstars Justin Smith and Patrick Willis.
COMMENTARY: The Super Bowl game between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens is going to be a historic defensive battle. If this holds true, the game will turn into a low scoring affair, dominated by the defenses of both teams. Special teams will be critical. 49ers field goal kicker David Akers must come through for the Niners to have a chance to win. The team that can create scoring opportunities with their special teams and commits the least turnovers and mistakes will win. I think the game will be decided by a field goal or touchdown. My prediction: San Francisco 49ers 20, Baltimore Ravens 17 in double overtime.
Super Bowl XLVII has been scheduled for Feb. 3 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. The San Francisco 49ers will face the Baltimore Ravens, and the game is being nicknamed the Bro Bowl because of coaches John and Jim Harbaugh. The following is a complete TV schedule for the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl XLVII TV Schedule
- 6 a.m. EST, NFL Total Access (NFL Network)
- 7 a.m. EST, First on the Field (NFL Network)
- 9 a.m. EST, NFL GameDay Morning (NFL Network)
- 11 a.m. EST, Road to the Super Bowl (CBS)
- 12 p.m. EST, New Orleans: Let the Good Times Roll Sponsored by Pepsi (CBS)
- 1 p.m. EST, Phil Simms All-Iron Team: Super Bowl Edition (CBS)
- 2 p.m. EST, The Super Bowl Today (CBS)
- 5:30 p.m. EST, A Football Life: Ray Lewis (NFL Network)
- 6 p.m. EST, Super Bowl Kickoff Show (CBS)
- 6:30 p.m. EST, Super Bowl Kickoff, San Francisco 49ers vs. Baltimore Ravens (CBS)
- 10 p.m. EST, NFL GameDay Overtime (NFL Network)
- 10:30 p.m. EST, NFL GameDay Final (NFL Network)
- 10:30 p.m. EST, Toyota Super Bowl Today Post Game Show (CBS Sports Network)