Sunday, February 3, 2013

2012-2013 NFL Playoff Predictions - Super Bowl XLVII

Brother v. Brother…Ray v. Retirement…Kaepernick v. History

Those are just three of the storylines for this year’s big game.  Baltimore and San Francisco, our two finalists for this year’s trophy, traveled different roads to New OrleansSan Francisco was considered one of the league’s better teams throughout the season, finishing as the NFC’s #2 seed with twelve wins.  Baltimore, on the other hand, sputtered through a 1-4 finish to the regular season and looked like a possible first round upset victim.  Not so fast.  While San Francisco overcame an early seventeen point road deficit to drop the Falcons, Baltimore pulled off its second straight sizeable upset in dropping the Patriots in Foxboro. 

So here we are with just one game remaining in the 2012-2013 NFL season, and both of these teams can thank their quarterback for that.  Joe Flacco has played excellent football this postseason, throwing eight touchdowns without an interception in three games.  He’s had his inconsistencies this season, but Flacco has become one of the better postseason passers in the league. Then there’s Colin Kaepernick.  The Niners second year quarterback took over for a concussed Alex Smith in November and has exceeded any and all expectations in going 7-2 as a starter and spearheading the dual threat quarterback movement. 

Flacco throws the deep ball better than anyone in football, as Rahim Moore witnessed a couple of weeks ago.   The guy is playing with such confidence right now, and it’s showing.  After pulling off the Mile High Miracle, he came back the next week and once again outplayed Tom Brady in a head-to-head matchup.  Not only is his play a huge reason the Ravens are still alive, but Flacco has earned himself a few more dollars in upcoming offseason contract talks with his recent performance. 

Kaepernick continues to break new ground.  After dominating the Packers and setting a new single game rushing record for a quarterback, he showed the poise of a veteran two weeks ago, rallying from that early deficit in a raucous Georgia Dome to win on the road.  What was most impressive to me about that victory was how he didn’t call his own number until late in the second quarter.  A week after running through the Packers, he focused on winning the game from the pocket, and he did it without turning the ball over. 

As much talk as these two quarterbacks are getting, the defenses are just as dangerous.  The Niners were the better defense for the regular season, but I really haven’t seen much separating them this postseason.  The Ravens are simply clicking at the right time and are getting the most from soon-to-be-retired Ray Lewis.  With all due respect to Ray, if he hadn’t sustained the injury earlier in the season and spent a great deal of time on the sidelines resting his body while getting healthy, I really don’t think he’s playing at this level this late in the season.  That doesn’t matter though.  What matters is that they’ve advanced to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2001.  Speaking of getting healthy, last year’s DPOY Terrell Suggs looks to be just now getting back to form after missing a large part of the year with his Achilles injury.  He’s the dominant pass rushing presence you need to win games of this magnitude.  Throw in guys like Paul Kruger, Corey Graham, Cary Williams, and Dannell Ellerbe stepping up as go-to players, and it’s easy to see why the Ravens are rolling. 

When talking about San Francisco’s defensive unit, you’ve got to start with the two inside linebackers – Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman.  These guys are probably #1 and #2 in the game at the position and give the Niners a size, speed, and power combination that gives opposing offenses nightmares.  Flanking them are two pass rushing standouts – Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks.  While those two combined for 26 sacks during the regular season, neither recorded either of the two sacks the Niners have in their two playoff games.  Aldon still hasn’t recorded a sack since Justin Smith sustained his triceps injury, and it should be worth noting that they only got to Aaron Rodgers once after the Packers passer was sacked 51 times during the regular season.   

Here’s how I see the matchups playing out –

Ravens run offense v. 49ers run defense
Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce have thrived thus far this postseason in the run game.  They combined for 170 yards against the Colts, 155 against the Broncos, and 121 against the Patriots at nearly 5 yards per carry.  The Ravens weren’t breaking new ground by gashing the Colts, but the Broncos and Patriots were 3rd and 9th respectively against the run.  San Francisco ranks 4th but hasn’t been tested yet having faced the 22nd (Green Bay) and 29th (Atlanta) ranked teams in yards per carry.  Baltimore was 12th in the regular season.  If you look at who the Niners played this year, the only strong run games they faced were Seattle and Minnesota, and they went 1-2 in those games.  Marshawn Lynch broke 100 yards in both games. 

Baltimore juggled their offensive line a few times this year, and I think they’ve finally found the best scenario.  Bryant McKinnie is back at LT moving Michael Oher back to his stronger RT position.  Kelechi Osemele is now at LG with veterans Matt Birk and Marshal Yanda at their normal C and RG positions.  These guys are consistently creating run lanes for Rice and Pierce, which makes Flacco and the deep ball even more dangerous.  Everyone knows what a threat Rice is both as a runner and receiver, but Pierce has really come on late as a valuable alternative to the veteran.  The Ravens haven’t lost anything by going to Pierce.  He’s a physical runner who has averaged an obscene 6 yards per carry since his coming out party in week 16 against the Giants. 

I like this matchup for the Ravens.  I expect them to run the ball up the middle quite a bit, attack NT Isaac Sopoaga, and be as physical as possible with the Niners defensive front.  They’ll hit the edges too, especially with Rice, against a defense that really fell off late in the year on run plays outside the tackle box.  I saw a stat that they’ve given up 5.5 yards per carry on outside runs since week 15.  Vonta Leach’s role in this one cannot be understated.  He’s arguably the best lead blocker in the game and will give the Niners another physical presence to deal with.  Again, Willis and Bowman are the best at their positions, but they won’t stop this powerful rushing attack on their own.  I expect to see them making more tackles at their level rather than in the Ravens backfield.  If that happens, the run game is doing its job, and Flacco will have even more space to operate in the Niners secondary. 

Advantage – Ravens

Ravens pass offense v. 49ers pass defense
As ferocious as the Niners defense has been, they’ve been thrown on quite a bit lately.  Rodgers and Matt Ryan combined for 653 yards passing against the Niners in the last two games, and Julio Jones owned San Fran’s secondary, catching 11 passes for 182 yards and two scores.  They’ve been getting beat deep which isn’t a good thing coming in against Flacco’s deep ball and Torrey Smith’s ability to outrun secondaries.  Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner can swap paint with the best of them, but you’ve got to catch Smith before you can hit him.  I’m not in any way trying to compare Smith, Anquan Boldin, Jacoby Jones, and Dennis Pitta to Atlanta’s trio of Jones, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez

The Ravens actually surrendered less sacks than the Niners this year (38 v. 41) and have only allowed four sacks in three postseason games.  They’ve done a good job of protecting their passer, especially of late.  I mentioned earlier how ordinary the Niners pass rush has been of late, and Justin Smith remains the key here.  That arm isn’t healing without surgery, so he’ll do his best to eat up blockers and free up Aldon to get after Flacco.  I just don’t think it will be enough.  They’ll need Brooks to have a big game against Oher and keep Flacco from having time to make plays downfield. 

I think a huge key here is how well the Ravens are operating at all three levels in the passing game.  Ray Rice is one of the best receivers out of the backfield in the short game, Anquan and Pitta are solid in the intermediate zone, and there aren’t a lot of people on the planet that can keep up with Smith and Jones when they go deep.  I’m looking for the Ravens to focus on Anquan and Pitta early on, spreading out the Niners and forcing them to play their safeties a little closer to the box than they want. 

If Anquan can win the matchup against Carlos Rogers, that’s huge for BaltimoreRogers is San Fran’s best corner, and if Anquan is moving the chains against him, I really like Smith’s chances of making big plays deep with a little less safety focus, especially if he’s seeing a lot of Tarell Brown.  I’d love to see Anquan matched up against Chris Culliver, as I think Anquan would win that one all day long.  San Francisco’s best move would be to blitz Rogers from the slot, both forcing Flacco to adjust his eyes and helping Brown not have to cover Smith too long.  They can’t allow Flacco to get into an early rhythm in the pocket.  That’s why I expect to see the Niners send Rogers off the edge at the start; put the Ravens in long yardage situations and control field position. 

As long as the Ravens can hold off the early onslaught I’m expecting the Niners to send their way, I like Flacco to continue his stellar play.  Again, he’s thrown eight TDs without an INT this postseason.  The Niners picked off Rodgers and Ryan once and I believe will need to get one from Flacco to win the game.  That said, Dashon Goldson might be the most important defensive player in the contest.  It may be his ability to defend the deep ball that decides this one. 

I don’t think Anquan gets shut down by Rogers and believe that Smith, Pitta, and Rice will rise to the occasion.  Flacco must keep the Niners from keying in on one receiver or one particular level of the passing grid.  I trust this guy and think we’ll see him spread it out quite a bit Sunday. 

Advantage – Ravens

49ers run offense v. Ravens run defense
San Francisco finished 4th in the league with an average of 155.7 yards per game, enhancing an already physical, downhill game with Kaepernick’s read option and pistol looks.  After gashing the Packers for 323 yards with a 7.5 ypc average and 4 touchdowns, the Niners earned 149 at 5.1 ypc with 3 scores against the Falcons.  Frank Gore remains the man in the backfield and is coming off his second straight 1,200 yard season.  Of the gaudy numbers above, Gore is responsible for 209 of those yards and 3 of the touchdowns. 

What hasn’t been said about Kaepernick?  The guy is a freak who looks ready to take over the league.  He destroyed the Packers on the ground and beat the Falcons from the pocket.  His ability to take advantage of mismatches with both the read option and pistol formation make this unit, arguably, the scariest rush offense in football.  Kaepernick (like Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, and RGIII) is a passing QB who can run, and he’s probably the best total package of the group.  I could easily see him breaking off a few big runs without a high attempt total.  I expect him to run when he needs to, not for his rushing to be a focal point of the game plan. 

I’ve got to mention LaMichael James.  He’s not being used a ton right now, but he’s the kind of player who shines in big games like this.  James has game breaking speed, and I’ve got to think that the scheming Jim Harbaugh is planning a play or two to get LMJ the ball in space.  Whether it’s James, Gore, or Kaepernick toting the rock, they’ll be doing so behind, arguably, the league’s best run blocking linemen featuring two All Pros in LT Joe Staley and LG Mike Iupati and a breakout at RT in Anthony Davis.  These maulers are going to bang against Baltimore’s front that’s given up it’s share of yardage this year.

In their three playoff games, the Ravens have surrendered a total of 385 yards.  That’s number looks even worse when you consider that Indy, Denver, and New England were 22nd, 16th, and 7th in rushing the ball this year.  On the bright side, they have yet to surrender a rushing touchdown in any of their three playoff games.  Will Ray Lewis look like the five-years-ago player we’ve seen over the last few weeks, or will this dominant Niner front be too much for the Ravens?  One matchup I’ll be anxious to watch is Iupati pounding against Haloti Ngata.  Talk about point of impact. 

Baltimore was second in red zone defensive efficiency this year, and they’ll have to bring that reputation to the field Sunday.  San Francisco will absolutely get their yardage.  The question is – will Baltimore keep Gore, James, and Kaepernick out of the endzone?  Will the Ravens stop the power run game?  Will they limit the zone reads?  Will they snuff out the pistol?  I see San Fran as the winner in all three of those scenarios.  Baltimore faced RGIII and Alfred Morris this year, and surrendered a combined 163 yards on the ground to the rookie pairing.  As long as the Ravens don’t get out to a huge lead, the Niners should be able to lean on their run game to wear down the Ravens defense and put points on the scoreboard.

Advantage – 49ers

49ers pass offense v. Ravens pass defense
The Niners don’t run a wide open passing game, but they do enough to get the job done.  No need to when you’ve got a thriving run game and stout defense to lean on.  Again, Kaepernick isn’t a runner who can throw.  He’s a passing quarterback who can make plays with his legs when needed.  The guy is playing lights out football for a second year passer who didn’t see the field until the midway point this season, and it all started in that first game against the Bears.  Kaepernick was making throws you don’t see some touted veterans make…in his first start!  He combines arm strength and accuracy with an undeterred confidence, which can translate to a long night for the opposition. 

Kaepernick had a 63.5% completion percentage, 496 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception against the Packers and Falcons.  He was also sacked just twice in those games.  Now those aren’t exactly the stoutest defenses in the league, but this is playoff football and the guy just refuses to be stopped. 

Enter the Ravens.  Their stat sheet won’t blow you away – 288 yards for Luck, 290 yards for Peyton, and 320 yards for Brady – but they’re the epitome of the bend-but-don’t-break defense.  In the first three rounds of the playoffs they held the 4th, 5th, and 7th ranked passing offenses to four total touchdowns and forced seven turnovers.  They’re getting to the passer as well.  In those three games, they totaled six sacks and made Brady look like Blaine-Gabbert-scared. 

Sure, Kaepernick is the most elusive of those passers, but he’ll be seeing a lot of Suggs, Kruger, and Ngata Sunday.  Suggs and Ngata are the healthiest they’ve been all year, and soon-to-be-free-agent Kruger is earning himself a lot of money this postseason.  Getting to Kaepernick and forcing him to look outside the numbers for receivers will be to the Ravens benefit.

Baltimore’s clear weakness is in the middle of the field.  Indy’s tight ends combined for seven catches and 76 yards in the wild card round, Tamme and Dreessen had nine catches and 90 yards in Denver, and Aaron Hernandez recorded nine receptions and 83 yards in the AFC Championship.  Lewis and Ellerbe are subpar in coverage, and I expect offensive coordinator Greg Roman to exploit them.  I see a big game for Vernon Davis and for Delanie Walker to make a dent in the stat sheet as well.  I think they’ll need to focus on Davis and Walker because of how well Baltimore’s boundary corners are playing. 

I like how Cary Williams and Corey Graham project against Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss.  Crabtree is Kaepernick’s #1 target, but he’ll be blanketed by Williams, the guy who picked off Brady to seal the win in Foxboro.  Look for Williams, the Ravens season leader in passes defended, to be on Crabtree’s hip all night and limit his yardage after the catch.  Williams winning this matchup will go a long way to helping the Ravens emerge victorious. 

Working in Baltimore’s favor as well is having the two veteran safeties in the back of the secondary.  Ed Reed has been quiet of late, but you know he’s going to do his best to tempt the young QB to make an ill-advised throw or two.  Davis is far too fast for Benard Pollard, so the Ravens enforcer will hope to keep the pass catcher in front of him rather than playing the chase game.  He cannot allow Davis to get free in space, or he’ll be watching him celebrate in the endzone.   

In summary, I can’t see how the Niners don’t attack Lewis and Ellerbe in coverage.  I think Davis will be their leading receiver, but will it be enough?  I’ve got Williams holding Crabtree to a stat line that closer resembles his 6/57/0 from the Falcons game and the safeties to make a game-changing play on the big stage.  Think Suggs wants to make his mark in this one?  Look for him to get in Kaepernick’s kitchen early on. 

Advantage – Ravens

Special Teams
The kicking matchup is clear.  Justin Tucker is good, and David Akers isn’t.  The Ravens rookie was 30 for 33 (90.9%) while the veteran Akers missed 13 of 42 kicks (69%).  If this one comes down to a field goal, I’m feeling a lot better if I’m a Ravens fan.  Jacoby Jones was one of the league’s better kick returners this regular season, but he’s had a quiet postseason.  I actually think LMJ will be the more dangerous returner in this one.  Baltimore allowed Trindon Holliday to take two to the house in the Denver game, so they need to be worried about a guy with James’ elusiveness.  Still, I think the kicking will end up being the most important aspect of the special teams units, and again, that edge goes to Baltimore.

Advantage – Ravens

In summary –
BAL rush v. SF – Ravens
BAL pass v. SF – Ravens
SF rush v. BAL – 49ers
SF pass v. BAL – Ravens
Special Teams – Ravens

I’m not underselling the Niners, but Baltimore is the hotter team right now and as we’ve seen in recent history, that’s usually the team that gets the win.  Baltimore will also be the most physical team San Francisco has played this postseason.  The Niners beat the “softer” Packers and Falcons but now face a Ravens team that won’t be pushed around.  I also think the fact that Baltimore had two tougher matchups in prior rounds at Denver and New England than did San Francisco is a factor. 

To me this is setting up to be a big statement game for Mr. Flacco.  I haven’t been his biggest believer, but I can’t ignore the way he’s playing right now.  I think that that he’s going to make the necessary throws and that the surging Ravens defense is going to apply a bit of pressure to Kaepernick, causing him to play more hurried than desired. 

I have two brothers who both played professional baseball, and I’m still having a hard time putting what the Harbaughs are going through into perspective – sons/brothers reaching the pinnacle of their game and facing each other for the most prestigious championship in professional sports.  I can’t wait. 

With the way both offenses are clicking, I expect there to be a good bit of scoring.  I think this one will be close throughout, with the lead changing hands at least three times.    Quite simply, I think this is Joe Flacco’s moment.  I expect to see him make the decisions, plays, and passes that championship quarterbacks make and for there to be a lot of Flaccoholics after this one. 

Ravens 31
49ers 24

MVP – Joe Flacco