My preview of Sunday’s big game.
This Sunday Ray Lewis, cornered by John Harbaugh, takes on Colin Kaepernick, cornered by Jim Harbaugh, in a one on one bout to determine this year’s Super Bowl champion. God will be the special guest referee.
Wait. There are other players and they’ll be playing football? I guess I haven’t been paying close enough attention.
Thankfully, when the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens step on the field on Sunday, Kaepernick and Lewis become part of a team, the Harbaugh brothers become guys on the sideline who call plays and hope their teams respond, and God has nothing to do with.
These two teams almost mirror each other, which I guess isn’t too surprising given that teams take on the personality of their head coaches and their head coaches are brothers. Their offenses can explode at any time with a big play and their defenses play hard nosed but fundamental football.
On offense, the Ravens rely on Joe Flacco’s big arm, their receivers going up to get the ball, and Ray Rice. I’ve been hard on Flacco in the past, feeling that he’s not as good as advertised, but I can’t argue with the way he’s played during the playoffs. Has he gotten a little lucky? Yes, but every great player has gotten lucky at some point in their career. Do I think Flacco can make every throw on the field? No, but he can make the throws when he needs to and he’s smart with the football. His biggest weapon is his arm and his receivers. Anquan Boldin is a big receiver who is tough to cover and will fight for every ball and that’s in the air, Torrey Smith is a great route runner with plenty of speed, and Jacoby Jones is a deep threat. All three receivers, and tight end Dannis Pitta, have to be accounted for on each play. If the coverage is blown or you leave one of them, especially Boldin, in one on one coverage, they’re going to burn you. Then there’s Ray Rice, who I think is the most complete running back in the NFL. Under new coordinator Jim Caldwell, the Ravens have finally started to use Rice to his full potential and he’s proving why he’s one of the best. What makes Rice more dangerous compared to other top running backs is his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. He has very good hands, runs a good route, and can take a 2 yard dump off 50 yards for a score.
The 49ers offense is a little less traditional thanks to Kaepernick. While he can stand in the pocket and make all the throws, he’s at his best when he’s using his legs to make plays. Kaepernick has to be accounted for on every play, which can put a lot of strain on the defense, as it takes away a player from covering a receiver. The 49ers receivers aren’t great, but they’re not terrible either. Michael Crabtree is a serviceable player who is great in space and Vernon Davis is one of the better tight ends in the league, but until the conference championship game, Kaepernick has struggled to get him the ball. Then there’s Randy Moss, who was once a great receiver, but is now an unhappy decoy. Moss still has to be covered, but he no longer requires over the top help since he’s lost a spring in his step and can’t get off the line quick anymore. Even though the 49ers passing game isn’t as scary as the Ravens, their running game is just as good. Not only is Kaepernick a threat to run, but they also have Frank Gore and LaMichael James. One brings power and toughness, the other brings speed and quickness. Combined they can give defenses headaches due to their change of pace. While some have criticized the read option, so far no one can been able to stop it. So even if it might not be around in five years, it’s around right now and teams have had a hard time figuring it out.
Because both offenses have big play ability, it’ll be up to the defenses to stop them. The 49ers defense don’t have too many recognizable stars outside of Patrick Willis, but they were the 4th ranked defense during the season and just play the game the correct way. They’re always in the right position and they know how to tackle, which is actually a big deal in today’s NFL. The 49ers defense can be taken advantage of though if you spread them out. Like the Atlanta Falcons, who had success in the passing game, the Ravens have the offensive firepower to go four or five wide and create match-up problems. If they do this, the 49ers will have to get to Flacco quickly, which means Justin Smith will need a huge game. If the Ravens spread the field and the 49ers aren’t able to disrupt Flacco, I think we’ll see big numbers in the passing game for the Ravens.
The Ravens defense has more recognizable names, but those names aren’t the ones really contributing. Ed Reed has been invisible all playoffs and Ray Lewis, despite putting up great tackling numbers, isn’t the player he once was. But the Ravens have other players who have stepped up though, including Terrell Suggs, Paul Kruger, and Haloti Ngata. Plus you know Bernard Pollard, who could play a big role in this game as a safety spy on Kaepernick, is always good for a big hit or two. Even though the focus might be on the wrong players, no one can argue with the results of the Ravens defense. They went into Denver and New England and shut down two of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. Kaepernick is a different breed than Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, but the Ravens have had two weeks to game plan for him. The Ravens haven’t faced a run game like the 49ers have during this playoff run though. In the regular season, the Ravens were 20th against the run. Granted they had some key injuries during the season, but it’s not like their rushing defense has been much better in the post-season, giving up well over 100 yards per game. Even if the Ravens can keep Kaepernick in the pocket, they still have to worry about Gore and James.
As much as the media has over-covered Ray Lewis, no one can deny the emotional impact he has on his team. No one should need extra motivation to play in the biggest football game of the year, but if for some reason they do, Lewis will be there to provide it, whether it’s with his pre-game speech or pending retirement.
Last year the Giants had God on their side thanks to stupid comments made by Tom Brady’s wife. This year the Ravens have God on their side as Lewis is God’s favorite defensive football player. Normally I don’t think God cares about sports, but sometimes I really doubt that. This is one of those times.
These two teams are pretty evenly matched. They’ve been the best two teams all playoffs and that’s why they’re playing this Sunday. I slightly favor the Ravens offense because their receivers are better, but I slightly favor the 49ers defense because they don’t have a glaring weakness. I can’t even say one coach has an advantage because both are very intelligent with their play calling and game management.
I’m going with the Ravens though because I think they’ll be able to execute better on offense and get a timely turnover. I expect a low scoring, hard hitting game that may not come down to the final play, but will be close the entire time.
Prediction: Ravens – 21 49ers – 17
Dustin James Prediction: Ravens – 27 49ers – 24