What can I say, most if not all of my post-season predictions, (not to mention fantasy team) have bombed, but does that matter? No! – because we have been left with a superb Super Bowl matchup: Representing the AFC, the Baltimore Ravens, and they’ll be facing off against the NFC’s San Francisco 49ers; all taking place in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. Possibly the biggest headline in the run-up is the Head-Coaching matchup between 2 brothers. The Harbaughs are the first to face-off as leaders of opposing teams, in what some are dubbing the Harbowl, the Bro Bowl, or my favourite, Harbaugh-mageddon.
10-6, AFC 4 Seed, Purple/Black
Nobody could say that the Ravens’ season has been straight forward – despite them jumping out to a 9-2 start. They were at the point of only needing one more win in order to secure the Division, but the offence faltered, suffered 3 defeats on the bounce, and during this time Harbaugh took the tough decision to fire OC Cam Cameron (midseason) and promote Jim Caldwell from quarterback-coach. This marked a shift towards the positive, and despite the Ravens continuing to stutter their way into the playoffs, they were getting all the pieces in place for what was to come.
Credit for a lot of the Ravens performances has to go to their QB, Joe Flacco. He has shown himself to be a top-calibre talent, and I know a said a Conference Championship was enough to show he’d moved up to the next level, but just to seal the deal a Super Bowl Ring will confirm his new status; he could expect him to join the ranks of (e.g.) Rodgers, Brady, & Brees as an ‘elite QB’. Statistically speaking Flacco is the ‘winningest’ QB in the time since he joined the league in 2008, and victory in the AFC Championship game means he is now sole holder of the record for most away-wins in the postseason, standing at 6 – he certainly seems to be able to pull it out at the sharp end of the season. (And if it wasn’t for Billy Cundiff’s missed field goal last season, would’ve already had his chance at the Lombardi Trophy.)
It is also worth noting that Flacco is the first quarterback in history to reach the playoffs in each of his first 5 seasons in the League. Numbers don’t lie, and they are suggesting there are big things in his future – and not just on the field: He is due to be a free agent at the end of the season, and his performances in the playoffs so far have pretty much guaranteed him a big pay-day come the off-season.
Baltimore’s big difference-maker is the depth of talent that it has at the wide-receiver spot – they have 3 top-level-players in Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones & Anquan Bolden. Smith is a strong receiver that doesn’t lack speed and who knows how to go up and get a ball, particularly in traffic. He’s not had a straightforward season, he lost his brother in a motorcycle-crash, chose to play throw his emotions; his performances strengthened as he threw himself into his football. In the Divisional Round Smith made Denver Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey look more like Chump Bailey, and also did similar to the New England defence. Bolden is a big receiver, weighing in at 220lb and 6’1”, meaning he is a tough man to cover by any linebacker and will cause any defensive-secondary problems. He also possesses one of the lowest dropped-pass counts in the league, a total of 2 (only).
Jones could, like the others, be a #1 receiver on another roster, and the ‘9ers will do well to remember that. The Ravens also possess other weapons in running back Ray Rice and tight end Dennis Pitta. Rice is vital to the Ravens; it’s not just the yards on the ground or the points he puts up. His threat on the ground is what sets up the play-action pass, relieves pressure on Flacco as teams have to scheme for the run, and frees up some space downfield for the receivers and tight ends to work. Dennis Pitta has recently come out as a threat down the middle of the field, especially when the receivers on the outsides have been covered. It’s Pitta and Bolden running short/intermediate routes that are Flacco’s go-to guys to get drives started.
The biggest name on the Ravens’ roster, and one of the biggest in the league, is Ray Lewis. He has been controlling the defence from the Mike-linebacker position and to this point the quality of his play has not diminished. He may have lost a step of pace, but still manages to be first to the ball – down to his experience and knowledge of the game. This season he leads his team in tackling, racking up almost twice as many as any other player, despite missing games with a torn tricep. A testament to just how long his tenure in the League is the fact that: 17 yrs ago he was drafted in the first round by the Ravens alongside Jonathan Ogden; earlier this year Ogden has been nominated for possible selection to the Hall of Fame, and in comparison Ray is about to play in the Super Bowl. (There is a 5 year waiting period between stopping playing and being eligible for selection.) He’s been in the league so long that his first recorded sack was against Jim Harbaugh, who as we know has since become the HC of the 49ers.
Ray Lewis and his defence have not performed up to their high standards for the whole duration of the regular season, mainly down to the number of injuries that they suffered. Lewis himself, as well as key pieces LB Terrell Suggs, CB Lardarius Webb and LB Dannell Ellerbe have all spent time on the sidelines. However, importantly for Baltimore, their roster has become healthy in time for the playoffs, which has played an important role in their progress through January. On the other side of that coin is the fact that many starting pieces are aging, and against an offence based on speed as well as power (like the ‘9ers) they will have to scheme well to take away some of the posed threats in order to reduce the possible production.
One of the intangibles that appears to be spurring Baltimore’s performances on is Ray Lewis’ retirement. Having announced that these playoffs were going to be his last games, and having played his last home-game, he’s still going. Is it fitting for him to be finishing his career on the biggest stage possible? Yes. Would it be the perfect end to his story for him to win another Ring in his final game? Yes. Will he get his fairytale ending? Time will tell. All that we know for sure is that his party continues...
The Ravens have shown that they should not be underrated; they set their feet against the Colts and in dispatching them re-established some confidence. Since then they’ve knocked out teams headed-up by the big-name-talents of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Despite in these games we are able to apportion blame on the later 2 QBs for their team’s loss; but it was Baltimore who put them in the situation that caused them to bottle it. I’ve picked against them in all 3 games in the Playoffs so far, especially against the Broncos and Pats so if I pick against them again, will they go on to win again? Flacco overcame a very one-sided statistic to beat New England, as Tom Brady was 67-0 when leading at halftime while playing at home – clearly he didn’t use enough FIDO audibles, and could’ve done with a few more badgers in mascara. (Have I used that right?)
Here are a few simple keys for a Baltimore victory:
- Establish the run (will reduce the pass-rush, allow play-action & create one-on-one matchups on the outside.
- Flacco has another elite-calibre performance (eliminate turnovers / and even the minor mistakes).
- Play smart on D (try to stop Kaep having the run of the field).
- Force SF to kick FGs.
Leftfield Prediction: Ray Lewis will be awarded MVP regardless of the result.
San Francisco 49ers
11-4-1, NFC 2 Seed, Red/Gold
Before the season started, San Francisco was one of the teams in the NFC that were tipped for a deep playoff run, and possible Super Bowl challenge. They had a strong defence, plenty of talent on offence, and an experienced QB in Alex Smith. Smith is a pocket-passer, with a strong grasp on game-management and at that point, Colin Kaepernick was just another name on the roster, merely an occasional runner of the WildCat (a deceptive offence designed to confuse the opposition at the time of the snap as to the destination of the ball – read-option-lite if you like). Before the season, in Training-Camp and the preseason games, ‘9ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh wasn’t completely sure about Smith, but he won out in the QB-battle. Up until the point at which he got injured, he had the highest completion percentage in the league, 70.1%, then in the 9th game he was knocked out, and this forced Harbaugh’s hand; Kaepernick had to be played and the results were immediate.
The consensus is that it is unfair to replace a starter permanently during a period in which they have been kept out of the game due to injury, especially with a concussion, as this might encourage lies about their health. But once Kaepernick had lit up the turf, there really was no going back. He demonstrated that he could thrive under-centre, had the wherewithal to run a Pro-offence and had a powerful (and very accurate) arm to go with his fast feet. He is another example of this new breed of NFL-QB (á la Cam Newton, RG3, Russell Wilson), but he seems to be an even better version.
One of the main reasons for Kaepernick’s success (in addition to his physical attributes) is the offence he now runs. He, like most of these new QBs (RG3, Wilson), also runs the read-option, and he does it well. The read option is for where there is a threat in the passing game, a threat in the running game, and you have a QB who is a threat with his legs as well as his arm. When it comes to handing the ball off (either on a run-play or on play-action), the QB reads the position and intention of the defence in order to gauge what they might not be covering, then hitting that option. I.e. defences cannot cover the pass, run or QB-run, so the one that is least covered at the time of the handoff gets exploited. Even though teams have realised this is exactly what the threat is, I’m not sure even the best defences are so stacked with talent as to be able to cover every option.
Kaep’s weapons on offence to look out for (and choose from in Fantasy) are RB Frank Gore, RB LaMichael James, WR Randy Moss, WR Michael Crabtree, and TE Vernon Davis. Gore is a power-runner and will handle most of the heavy lifting; he’ll form part of the ground-&-pound portion of the running attack, whereas rookie James is more fleet-of-foot and provides a change of pace to unsettle the opposing D. Catching his passes Kaep has veteran-receiver Randy Moss and, and a sharp Michael Crabtree. However Crabtree will have to make sure he gets his fumbling under control as it could’ve cost them dearly in the Championship game. Over the middle there are the safe-pair-of-hands in tight end Vernon Davis. He creates mismatches with the backs tasked to cover him and so becomes a favourite target to keep drives alive – he had 5 catches for 106 yards and a TD against the Falcons.
San Francisco is by no means just an offensive team. Their defence is one of the best in the league, ranked 3rd on yards allowed per game, 2nd on points allowed per game, and is the difference-maker when matchups get tight. Their main strength lies in their line-backing core of Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith, who together apply pressure on the opposing QB, do a job at stopping the run or drop onto coverage – depending on the play-call. Smith produced more than half of the 49ers’ sacks in the regular season, 20 out of 38. Whatever the threat, the ‘9ers’ D is adept in reducing it, especially when Justin Smith is able to dominate from his position at tackle on the D-Line. They have one of the best third-down conversion rates, allowing it only 33% of the time, they also gave up the second-fewest first downs per game, averaging 17.8.
San Fran’s playoff run has only improved the wider opinion of them – was Kaepernick too inexperienced to cut it in January? No – he showed against Green Bay that he was ready and that when a team hasn’t done their homework or schemed appropriately, then he would run and throw all over them. Despite not putting up headline-grabbing numbers against the Falcons, Kaep was still on top form. When being blitzed he was 9-12, 129 yards, with a TD and a 23-yard scramble (a QB-rating of 137.2) and when using play action he was 6-7, 88 yards and a TD (a perfect rating of 158.3).
Here are a few simple keys for victory; San Francisco:
- Establish the run (similarly, but also creates deception for the read-option).
- Use all the tricks in the offence’s bag to put the Ravens’ D on the back foot on every snap (but not for Kaep to force plays).
- Play strong D (use the talented front-7 to out-muscle the run and force Flacco to throw under pressure / on the run).
- Score touchdowns (Kicker David Akers has been less reliable than is desirable).
You can see by the 2 game-plans that the teams are seemingly set up along the same lines, but what do you expect from 2 brothers as HCs.
History tells us that SF are the only team (with more than one appearance) to be undefeated in Super Bowl; Baltimore on the other-hand are also undefeated, but have only got this far once in their short existence. The all-time record goes in the Ravens’ favour, having won 3 out of the 4 meetings between the 2 sides.
Leftfield Prediction: Kaepernick will run for more yards than his RBs.
I was going to refrain from picking a team for victory, but after looking at it I think the 49ers probably win the match-ups. Taking into account the number of weapons on both rosters, there doesn’t appear to be too much to separate the production on offence. But on defence, I’m not confident that the aging Ravens will be able to handle Kaep, as much as I can see the ‘9ers being able to limit Flacco’s production. San Francisco to take it for me – I won’t mind however if the result goes the other way, just so long as it’s a great game. My prediction may be for nothing, as the form book often is thrown out of the window on any given Sunday.
It all kicks off down in NOLA
With so many other storylines, the New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) connection can get lost. Super Bowl XLVII marks the returns to The Big Easy for the first time since Hurricane Katrina hit in the August of 2005. The storm caused horrific damage to the city, took a number of lives and devastated plenty more; as well as ripping off part of the roof of the Superdome, leaving it gaping and vulnerable. The stadium became a significant player in the start to the relief effort – the number of emergency beds that were crammed inside made the scene closer to that of a refugee camp than that of a sporting super-venue.
But the 30 year-old stadium couldn’t cope under the strain – the leaking roof, flooding, and unsanitary and down-right dangerous conditions, not to mention the approach of Hurricane Rita, meant those sheltering had to make their escape to Houston. When the weather had calmed and the reconstruction effort could start the Superdome was a focal-point in the rebuilding of the city. The population of NOLA rallied around the NO Saints and their organisation as the performances of the team grew to be a pulse for the city. The rebuilding effort took its time; time for the Saints to nomadically play in high-school stadia as well as in 2009 win their first Super Bowl as a franchise.
Things were looking up for the city until the #bountygate scandal of 2012 hit. The Saints were accused of running a pay-to-injure scheme among members of the defence. Various players on the roster and some of the backroom-staff were suspended for varying lengths of time. The city reacted strongly to the punishments that were handed out, and the fact that this all but destroyed any chance of the Saints being able to fight for a home-Super Bowl. Many have called for Commissioner Roger Goodell’s resignation for his handling of the situation. But as he has recently lifted the final suspension the grudges against the management can be put to one side and the city make itself ready to fully embrace the NFL again. The return of the Super Bowl marks the completion of a long and arduous journey for the city and the people of NOLA. It’s approaching Mardi Gras, so expect a carnival- to go with the regular Super Bowl party-atmosphere.
If you’ve enjoyed or just missed out on playing the Fantasy-NFL during the playoffs (or generally need a redo because your picks were dire) then good news. I’ve mentioned in the comments before that we should get ourselves a mini-league sorted for next season. So watch this space, just as the F1 Championship-race is hotting up later this year, there should be chance to get on board just in time for the season to kickoff around September-time.
I’ll also take this opportunity to sign off the self-appointed NFL-commission for the season. It’s been a good one, I’ve enjoyed keeping up with it, and most of all it’s been good to have you along for the ride – despite the sleep that has been sacrificed. We’ve conveniently come to the end of the matches just as the F1 season is gearing up, so as of the first Monday in February, the Cs can have their website back, and live-commenting motor-racing can retake its rightful place.