“Laissez les bons temps rouler”. No, I am not expecting you to know what that means, or even how to pronounce it. That is indeed French, and in translation it reads, “let the good times roll”. This is the official slogan of Mardi Gras, New Orleans, Louisiana’s yearly celebration and main tourist attraction. While Mardi Gras officially goes down on February 12th, the festivities have already begun, with the nation’s biggest sporting event in town, Super Bowl XLVII.
On Sunday evening the New Orleans streets will clear out a bit, and the bars will fill up to watch the Baltimore Ravens take on the San Francisco 49ers in the Superdome. Both of these teams have run the playoff gauntlet, each winning their conference’s championship on the road, and have earned the right to battle for the prestigious Lombardi trophy. The niners went into Atlanta and survived an early onslaught from Matty Ice and the Falcons, en route to a 28-24 victory, while the Ravens went into Foxboro, a place that rarely see’s a road team come away with a victory, and simply punched the Patriots in the mouth, coasting to a 28-13 victory.
As Sunday approaches, I can’t help but be upset with the lack of media attention this games has received as it pertains to the opposing head coaches. Ok, you got me, I’m kidding. The Har-Bowl or Super Bro’s as it’s been referred to by seemingly everyone has dominated the headlines for the last two weeks. While this is the first Super Bowl to pit two brother’s against one another, it’s got a little old rather quickly, and this preview will be one that focus’ on the men that will step inside the lines Sunday evening, opposed to the dueling Harbaugh brother’s.
Each one of these teams has made a significant change that drastically changed the course of their respective seasons. The Ravens fired their offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and replaced him with former head coach Jim Caldwell following a week 13 loss to the Redskins. Cameron and QB Joe Flacco were not seeing eye to eye and a change was imminent. Caldwell and Flacco hit it off, and after limping into the playoffs, the Flacco led Ravens have been clicking on all cylinders, even earning praise from former OC, Cameron. The 49ers change was a lot more publicized and was welcomed with a great deal of scrutiny. Alex Smith “lost” his starting job in week 10 after suffering a concussion against the Rams. Colin Kaepernick came in and played well, prompting coach Jim Harbaugh to promote the second year QB to starter. Harbaugh was taking a huge risk, seeing that Smith led the niners to last seasons NFC Championship game. Kaepernick has made his coach look like a genius, using his accurate and lively arm, along with his tremendous athletic ability to lead San Fran to the Super Bowl, literally one upping the veteran Smith.
During the regular season, the 49ers were the leagues 3rd best total defense while, the Ravens came in at 17th. On the offensive side of the ball, the niners came in at 11th and the Ravens checked in at 16th. But, for all intents and purposes let’s throw these numbers out the window, as the Ravens were without their leader Ray Lewis for a good portion of the season, and San Fran made a QB change mid season, (amongst many things) and focus on how they’ve performed in the post season. The Ravens boast both the #1 post season offense and defense, while the 49ers are just behind in total offense and in the middle of the pack on the defensive side of the ball.
The Ravens offense has been lights out all post season, scoring 24, 38, and 28 in the playoffs. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce have been quite the one two punch in the backfield, no one has been able to find an answer for Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin on the outside, and Joe Flacco is playing the best football of his career, hands down. The 49ers also offer a balanced attack, with Kaepernick at the helm. The pistol formation baffled both the Packers and Falcons, with the zone read being the niners go to play. Against the Packers, Kaepernick passed for 263 yards, and ran for 181 more, breaking an NFL QB rushing record. Frank Gore has more than done his share, and WR Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis have both had 100 yard games in the playoffs.
On the defensive side of the ball, both of these teams have play makers at all three levels. The Niners apply pressure with their d-end duo of Justin and Aldon Smith. They have a group of Pro Bowl linebackers led by team leader in tackles Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis, and boast perhaps the leagues hardest hitting secondary led by safety Dashon Goldson. The Ravens are led up front by run stuffer Haloti Ngata, and pass rusher Terrell Suggs. LB and team leader Ray Lewis anchors the line-backing corp, while All Pro safety Ed Reed roams the secondary. Here are a few of the match-ups and story lines I’ll be looking forward to on Sunday.
– Will the Ravens be able to contain Kaepernick on the zone read? The zone read has been the 49ers bread and butter in the second half of the season, and that play, almost solely beat the Packers a few weeks back. The Ravens ends and outside linebackers will need to be disciplined and stay home on any run action. If the Ravens get caught napping, Kaepernick can bust a long run and open this game up.
– The Niners O-Line vs. the Ravens D-Line. quite frankly, the 49ers have the leagues best offensive line. They are great in pass pro, and open up gaping holes for Gore in the run game. The Ravens defensive line is pretty stout also. Ngata is a monster against the run, and Suggs wreaks havoc coming off the edge. Can the niners o-line control the ravens defensive line, or will the ravens d-line disrupt things up front? I give the edge to San Francisco.
– Which backup running back will have the bigger impact? Both Bernard Pierce and LaMichael James have been pleasant surprises for their respective teams in the playoffs. James has been a nice change of pace back for the niners in the post season, and scored a pivotal TD last week in Atlanta. Pierce has been great for Baltimore all season, and was the Ravens leading rusher both last week against the Patriots and in the wild card round against Indy.
– Which tight end will exploit a mismatch? Both Dennis Pitta and Vernon Davis are Pro Bowl caliber tight ends, and could be key towards a victory. Both Pitta and Davis are mismatches for most opposing teams. LB’s can’t stay with them and DB’s aren’t big enough. The play of one, or both of these guys could impact this game.
– Special Teams. Last season the 49ers fell just short of the Super Bowl, arguably because of their special teams play (sorry, Kyle). This season their Special Teams has been better, but has lacked the big play. For the Ravens, Jacoby Jones is a threat to house it every time he touches the rock. Advantage Baltimore.
– Ray Lewis. I have tried to avoid the elephant in the room long enough, but I just couldn’t anymore. It has been well (overly) publicized that this is the great linebackers final game, as he will hang em’ up for good Sunday night. Lewis fought back from an early season triceps tear (“possibly with the help of dear antler spray”) to be apart of Baltimore’s magical post season run. He is without question the leader, and heart of the Ravens and while this is the Super Bowl and you shouldn’t need any extra motivation, expect Lewis and more so his teammates to leave it all on the field in hopes of sending Lewis off into the sunset with the Lombardi trophy.
– Which QB will shrink, and which QB will rise? Who’s under more pressure? Is it the veteran Flacco, who claims that he’s elite but has seemed to underwhelm his entire career, typically falling just short. Can he finally silence the critics, get paid, and be considered elite? or is it San Fran’s soft-spoken, but brash second year QB? Kaepernick is making his tenth NFL start, yes TENTH, in the biggest game of his life. Will the bright lights finally be too much for the kid, or will he just naive enough to even realize what’s truly at stake, and in turn play out of his mind. This may be the biggest storyline Sunday night, as one of these signal callers will be able to put “Super Bowl winning Quarterback” on their resume.
These two teams come into this game both playing their best football, and just as important both teams are completely healthy. While this Super Bowl doesn’t seem to be getting as much pub as say last year’s, I expect a great game in the Superdome. You have the 49ers, one of the leagues most heralded franchises going for their sixth Lombardi trophy, and on the other side you have one of the leagues youngest franchises looking for their second. You have the young, electric, heavily tatted, dual threat quarterback against the veteran Delaware grad, who creates big plays from the pocket, with his arm. A young, talented play-making defense, up against a wily veteran group that bends but often doesn’t break. Shoot, the opposing head coaches are brother’s! The differences and ultimately the similarities between these two teams should make for a well executed, hard hitting contest, that concludes with an exciting finish.
In the end, I think the 49ers will secure their sixth Super Bowl title. If you took anything from his preview, you would’ve noticed how evenly matched these two are coming into this game. A Ravens victory would not surprise me in the least. Flacco is playing out of his mind, as is the Ravens defense. The Ravens also have the Ray Lewis factor. While he is the team’s leader tackler in the post season, the emotional impact Lewis will have on this game, may be even greater. The Ravens will come out firing early, taking deep shots against the San Fran secondary. I just don’t think they’ll be able to sustain it. I expect the niners to lean heavily on the run early, easing young Kaepernick into the game. There will be a point where he will need to make a play either with his legs or his arm, and I think he will. He’s handled everything like a pro and I think he’ll go into this game with a chip on his shoulder, using the pass to exploit the Ravens. When the clock hits zero, the scoreboard will read 24-20, and the San Francisco 49ers will again reign supreme as champions of The National Football League.