Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Super Bowl XLVII Preview
Five Quick Hits
* RIP Stan Musial. One of the 10 or 15 greatest baseball players in history, and perhaps the most decent man and admirable superstar in the history of professional sports.
* Both home teams were shut out in the second half on Sunday. That's weird enough even if you forget that they were the highest and 7th-highest-scoring teams in the NFL.
* Both Super Bowl teams are pretty healthy right now. I wish that made less difference, that it was just the best teams and not those with the fewest injuries. Heaven help us if Roger Goodell forces through an 18-game schedule.
* Memo to Jim Nantz: Frenchy Fuqua was right next to Jack Tatum. I'm pretty sure the player who actually caught the Immaculate Reception was some guy named Franco.
* Congratulations to this year's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award finalists: Larry Fitzgerald, Joe Thomas, and Jason Witten. It is weird and unseemly, though, that once again two of the three finalists are white. The NFL is something like 80% black.
* Click to view odds on the rest of the games with our partner, SportsBetting.ag.
After Sunday night's loss, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick declined to speak to CBS. Shannon Sharpe contrasted Belichick's refusal with the graciousness of other coaches, and I suspect he spoke for many fans when he said that kind of behavior "makes it easy to root against" New England. That seems reasonable, but I also understand Belichick's decision. He's not a real amiable guy to begin with, and he's an intense competitor who was probably in a very bad mood when the interview was requested. I've always felt that immediate interviews with losing players and coaches are kind of mean, borderline inappropriate. Would CBS or its viewers really gain anything by hearing Belichick grunt terse responses and platitudes about how the other team played better? I don't think so.
And Sharpe's perspective is totally different from Belichick's. Sharpe is not only extraverted, but nearly exhibitionist. He has always loved public attention and has never turned away from a camera. Belichick comes off as a hermit. He clearly is not a people person, and would probably decline all media interaction if he could. Belichick is not a great interview even when his team wins. Sharpe is upset as a member of the media, and on a personal level he can't relate to Belichick's decision. I understand his frustration, but I don't think he made any effort to put himself in the coach's position, and I don't have any problem with Belichick's refusal to do an interview five minutes after falling one game short of the Super Bowl.
Conference Championship Roundups
49ers 28, Falcons 24
For the second week in a row, Atlanta couldn't hold a lead. Up 20-0 over the Seahawks, they fell apart in the second half and trailed with under 1:00 to play. Up 17-0 against the 49ers, they didn't score in the second half and lost a home playoff game for the second time in the last three seasons.
I like Boomer Esiason, but he said something loony on the CBS postgame show, calling Colin Kaepernick's performance "maybe the best game that you'll ever see a second-year player play in a big spot." The 49ers totaled -2 yards in the first quarter. Atlanta wideout Julio Jones had more yards in the first 10:00 than Kaepernick did in the first 30:00. He had a nice second half and a good overall game, but hardly the best ever by a young player.
What made Boomer's comment especially strange was that when he said it, Tom Brady had just finished playing. Brady was a second-year player when the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI. The other thing that made Boomer's comment so strange was that when he said it, Dan Marino was in the same room. In the 1984 AFC Championship Game — an equally "big spot" — Marino passed for 421 yards and 4 TDs in a 45-28 Miami victory. I could go on (Marcus Allen, Kurt Warner, Ben Roethlisberger, etc.), but you'd think Brady and Marino in particular might have come to mind. I sometimes wonder if everyone else at CBS hates Marino.
The Falcons outgained San Francisco by over 100 yards, but the Niners strung most of their offensive productivity into scoring drives, and went 4/5 in the red zone. The comeback, which might be more aptly viewed as Atlanta's collapse, included a 17-0 deficit, a double-digit halftime lead for the home team, and a scoreless second half by a team that averaged more than 26 points per game.
Ravens 28, Patriots 13
Both the Ravens and Patriots reached the red zone four times. The Ravens scored touchdowns on all four drives. The Patriots got one touchdown, two field goals, and a failed fourth-down conversion. New England didn't capitalize on opportunities, turning what should have at least been a close game into a fairly comfortable Baltimore victory.
On average, NFL teams score approximately 1 point for each 15 yards of offense. The Patriots led the league this season, with 1 point per 12.3 yards. Against the Ravens, New England gained 428 yards and scored just 13 points — 33 yards per point, almost three times their season average. The Patriots repeatedly settled for short field goals (25 and 31 yards) and short punts (three from Baltimore territory, two inside the 40). They had four 4th-quarter possessions, and all ended in turnovers, each of the last three inside the Raven 25-yard line. You can't blow half a dozen scoring opportunities and expect to win a playoff game.
Joe Flacco should not be the story here. Baltimore's defense won this game. New England had the league's best offense this season, leading the NFL in points, yardage, and first downs. The Patriots scored 30 points or more 10 times, and more than 40 five times. The Ravens held them to a season-low 13. The last time the Patriots scored so few points in a game was Week 2 of 2009 (at Jets). The last time they scored so little at home was 2008, when the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers held the Matt Cassel-led Pats to 10. With Tom Brady, you have to go back to 2006. That's more than six years ago. That's how well Baltimore's defense played.
Before this game, Brady was 67-0 at home with a halftime lead. I believe that Baltimore safety Bernard Pollard has now hurt the Patriots franchise more than any other player in history. More than Don Maynard, Dan Marino, Desmond Howard, Peyton Manning, Ray Lewis, anybody. In 2008, New England was coming off an undefeated regular season. But in Week 1, Pollard injured Tom Brady, and the Matt Cassel-led Patriots went 11-5 but missed the playoffs. Twice that year, they lost by 3. It seems conservative to guess that with a healthy Brady, the Pats might have gone 13-3 and earned the top seed in the AFC playoffs. They probably would have been Super Bowl favorites.
In 2009, a hit from Pollard injured Wes Welker. The team went 10-3 with Welker, but 0-4 without him, including the only time a Belichick/Brady team has lost in the first round of the playoffs. It was Brady's first home loss in more than three years. Last season, Pollard knocked Rob Gronkowski out of the AFC Championship Game, and a clearly hobbled Gronk was little more than a decoy in Super Bowl XLVI. He had 8 catches, 101 yards, and a touchdown when the Pats and Giants met in the regular season, but without him, New England managed just 17 points and lost by 4.
This weekend, Pollard KO-ed Stevan Ridley, and the ensuing fumble from an unconscious Ridley may have been the turning point. Ridley never returned to the game, but even more important, a strong New England drive — they'd gained first downs on consecutive plays, and Ridley gained eight before the knockout — turned into Baltimore's best starting field position of the game and led to the clinching touchdown. That's the 2008, '09, '11, and '12 seasons that Pollard torpedo-ed for New England. Subtract those four hits, and I believe the Patriots win at least one more Super Bowl.
The Crystal Ball
Super Bowl XLVII: Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers
New Orleans, Louisiana
February 3, 2013
Last year, both Harbaugh brothers came up one game short of the Super Bowl. This year, they're both on their way to New Orleans for the big game. That angle is genuinely interesting, but if you read, watch, or listen to much sports media, it will become tiresome in under 48 hours. It's two weeks before they finally play the game.
BALTIMORE ON OFFENSE
You'll hear a lot in the next two weeks about how much Joe Flacco has improved, that he's now one of the great QBs in the NFL. As Diamond Joe Biden would say, that's a bunch of stuff. Flacco is Trent Dilfer 12 years later. This season, he ranked 14th in passing yards, tied for 15th in TDs, and 14th in passer rating. Isn't that, uh, average? Even if you want to evaluate Flacco purely on the last two games, which is nuts, he only completed half his passes against the Broncos, and only played well in the second half against New England. He's not a bad player, but he's much closer to average than great.
Anquan Boldin is the best player on this offense, followed by Ray Rice. Torrey Smith is a wild card, a deep threat who can't be ignored, and Bernard Pierce has shined splitting time with Rice. Smith is particularly interesting because the 49ers had so many problems with speedy Julio Jones, but I question how much Rice and Pierce will be able to do against San Francisco's 4th-ranked run defense (94 yds/gm, 3.7 yds/att).
The Ravens scored 38 in the overtime win over Denver, and 28 against New England this week, but the Niners have the best defense they've faced all season, and the same openings won't be there. I'd look for a performance that more closely resembles the divisional game against the Broncos: big plays mixed in among short drives that go nowhere. I don't think Baltimore will gain 20 first downs, so big plays will be critical. Rice and Smith are the home run hitters, though on third down or near the goal line, Boldin should be the first option.
SAN FRANCISCO ON OFFENSE
We all probably need to be more careful equating running QBs to one another. Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton, Michael Vick, and Russell Wilson are five different people. But both Griffin and Vick had big games against the Ravens this season, and Baltimore lost both games. Kaepernick presents defenses with some of the same problems.
The Ravens' best chance is to keep Kaepernick in the pocket and make him win as a passer. He's certainly capable of that, as he showed against Atlanta (16/21, 127.1 rating) and in the regular season (league-best 8.3 yds/att), but the Falcons kept things much closer than the Packers did. You can't let him be a runner. Really, if the Ravens can contain Kaepernick and do what they did against New England, they'll have a good chance: bend, don't break. Stiffen up on third down and in the red zone, make the 49ers settle for field goal attempts.
For San Francisco, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis become the weapons who can break this game open. Frank Gore and LaMichael James should find openings with the defense worried about Kaepernick, but Crabtree and Davis and maybe even Randy Moss are the ones who can really break this game open. Davis in particular presents a matchup problem, because he's too fast for a linebacker or safety to cover, and too strong for most corners to bring him down one-on-one. He occasionally seems to disappear, though, so Baltimore will want to work its blitzes to make him a blocker.
The edge here is probably Baltimore's. The Ravens suffered two embarrassing coverage meltdowns against Baltimore in the divisional playoff, and San Francisco punter Andy Lee is an All-Pro, but David Akers has been terribly shaky on field goals, and Jacoby Jones scored three return TDs this season. Jones makes too many bad decisions for my taste, but one big return could blow this game open.
We see over and over again that turnovers determine games, and I have a little more faith in the Ravens than the Niners to protect the ball. But I also believe the 49ers have a better overall offense, and a better overall defense.
If they win, it will be with smart, explosive play from Kaepernick. He can commit one turnover and they'll overcome that, but if he throws multiple picks or takes a bunch of sacks, they'll be in trouble. Instead, he has to make plays with his arm and his feet, and he can't let Davis become a non-factor. Gore will take advantage of openings, and James might break a long run at some point. Crabtree keeps the chains moving, and the line keeps Kaepernick clean. Defensively, Aldon Smith keeps enough pressure on Flacco that long plays don't have time to develop, and the great linebacking corps keeps Ray Rice bottled up.
If the Ravens win, you'll see big plays on offense, including at least one touchdown from Torrey Smith. But Baltimore wins this game with defense, and maybe special teams. Akers could miss a couple field goals, or Jones could break a long return. Kaepernick could throw a pick-six or lose a fumble, or maybe Bernard Pollard injures everybody. But the 49ers can't put drives together, and when they get close they can't find the end zone. The Ravens proved this weekend that they can hold a potent offense to field goals and win.
The Ravens haven't faced a defense like this, and they've struggled against dual-threat QBs like Kaepernick. Ray Lewis goes out with a loss, and the 49ers win their sixth Super Bowl, 27-20.