AFC #4 Baltimore Ravens (AFC North Champion)
- 2012 Record: 13-6 (defeated Indianapolis 24-9 in Wild-Card Round, Denver 38-35 in 2OT in Divisional Round, and New England 28-13 in AFC Championship)
- Regular Season Point Differential: +54 (11th)
- Strength of Schedule: -0.5 PPG (17th)
- Offensive PY/P Rating (including playoffs): 3.10 (10th)
- Defensive PY/P Rating (including playoffs): 1.67 (6th)
- Net Yards per Pass Attempt: 6.3 (15th)
- Yards per Carry: 4.3 (12th)
- Net Yards per Pass Attempt Allowed: 6.1 (16th)
- Yards per Carry Allowed: 4.0 (8th)
- Number of Bona Fide Superstars: 1 (Haloti Ngata)
- Unintentional Comedy Potential: Medium
NFC #2 San Francisco 49ers (NFC West Champion)
- 2012 Record: 13-4-1 (defeated Green Bay 45-31 in Divisional Round and Atlanta 28-24 in NFC Championship)
- Regular Season Point Differential:+124 (4th)
- Strength of Schedule: +2.5 PPG (4th)
- Offensive PY/P Rating (including playoffs): 3.48 (1st)
- Defensive PY/P Rating (including playoffs): 1.50 (2nd)
- Net Yards per Pass Attempt: 6.9 (8th)
- Yards per Carry: 5.1 (3rd)
- Net Yards per Pass Attempt Allowed: 5.3 (3rd)
- Yards per Carry Allowed: 3.7 (3rd)
- Number of Bona Fide Superstars: 4 (Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Navorro Bowman)
- Unintentional Comedy Potential: Medium
5:30 P.M. Sunday, February 3rd, CBS (Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Steve Tasker, Solomon Wilcots)
It’s probably unfair to suggest that a poor performance a year before eventually losing his starting position was the reason why Alex Smith gradually lost the faith of Jim Harbaugh, despite performing well when healthy this season. But the 49ers’ Thanksgiving game against the Ravens last season may have fully illustrated for Harbaugh how close his team was to being a true Super Bowl contender…and yet still perhaps a quarterback away from fully realizing that potential. In a huge shocker, San Francisco played well defensively in that game – they held the Ravens to 253 total yards and allowed Ray Rice to only pick up 59 yards on 21 carries. Joe Flacco had an efficient game, picking up 161 yards on 23 attempts (plus a 50-yard defensive pass interference penalty), but overall the 49ers only gave up one touchdown – an 8-yard pass from Flacco to Dennis Pitta on the first play of the fourth quarter that broke a 6-6 tie. The Ravens obviously aren’t known as an offensive powerhouse, but over the past five years they’ve averaged 26.55 points per game at home, good enough for sixth best in the league over that span. The 49ers ultimately only gave up 16. Not bad.
The problem was that 16 points became an utterly impossible target for their offense to equal because of the problems Smith and Co. were having with the Ravens’ pass rush. Smith ended up getting sacked nine times on only 33 dropbacks and looked utterly lost against the Ravens’ blitzing schemes as the second half wore on. This isn’t to pin all the blame on his shoulders, of course: even this year, the 49ers’ offensive line has had real trouble in pass protection and they didn’t resemble anything close to the current progression of themselves on that November night in Baltimore. But, ultimately, the quarterback has more influence on incurring sacks than most people give the position credit for; Peyton Manning’s offensive line his last few years in Indianapolis was essentially held together by love and he’d still only get sacked 15 times a season. Alex Smith, on the other hand, was sacked 44 times in 489 dropbacks in 2011 and was on pace to get sacked 47 more times this season before he was concussed by Jo-Lonn Dunbar of the Rams on November 11th. Smith did an excellent job of avoid killer mistakes – he was only intercepted 10 times on 663 attempts the past two seasons. But a series of small, consistent mistakes is just as likely a robber of Super Bowl glory.
Was Smith’s demotion in November a rough way to treat a player? Absolutely. Smith ended up 10th in the league in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt this season and was playing the best football of his life. If he had a receiver wide open down the field – and given the superb way Jim Harbaugh’s drawn up the offense this year, that happened a lot – he consistently hit that receiver in stride. He played confidently and was a key piece of a team that went 6-2 during his time at starting quarterback this season. The 49ers have been the best team in the league virtually all season, whether it’s been Smith or Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, and it’s entirely possible the 49ers would have still made it to the Super Bowl with Smith at the helm.
And yet you never really got the sense that opposing teams were truly terrified of the Niners with Smith at quarterback. In their two losses with him at quarterback – a 24-13 loss at Minnesota in Week 3 and a disappointing 26-3 blowout at the hands of the Giants in an NFC Championship rematch – the 49ers fell behind early and Smith committed five turnovers combined in those two losses trying to bring the team back. The perception around the 49ers, fair or not, was that if you jumped out to a lead on them, they wouldn’t catch up.
And now with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback? “It looks like they can come back now,” as one NFC Pro Bowler said during an interview last Sunday night. Some of Kaepernick’s statistical advantages over Smith this season are lucky – the 1.4% interception rate Kaepernick enjoyed is eerily similar to the charmed 1.1% rate Smith ran through last season – but the key categories suggest Harbaugh made a good switch. Despite owning a completion percentage nearly eight points lower than Smith’s (62.4% to 70.2%), Kaepernick still owned a higher Yards per Attempt figure (8.3 to 8.0), ran for nearly three hundred more yards and five more touchdowns and, perhaps most importantly, got sacked on just 6.8% of his dropbacks, compared 9.9% for Smith. He’s still a bit raw – he rifles every pass and hasn’t shown much touch yet – but the ceiling of the 2012 San Francisco 49ers is about three points higher with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback. And those three points may be crucial this Sunday evening.
The Ravens perhaps haven’t “shocked the world” with their performance in the playoffs thus far – that phrase should probably only be reserved for Super Bowl III or XLII level upsets – but you are still definitely allowed to express genuine surprise at their participation in this game. It’s not just that they beat the clear two best teams in the AFC (and I’m not including Indianapolis in that discussion) on the way to the Super Bowl – it’s that they actually outplayed both teams in doing so. Usually in these quasi-fairy tale postseason runs, the underdog team rides some unfortunate luck from the favorite and parlays some fluky bounces into a couple of tight victories. But the Ravens completely outplayed Denver at the line of scrimmage all game in the Divisional Round and if Trindon Holliday hadn’t made a mockery of their top-rated special teams unit, they wouldn’t have needed the Hail Flacco pass to push the game into overtime. And against New England, they out-executed and out-thought a Bill-Belichick-coached team. Let that last sentence sink in for a few seconds if the enormity doesn’t strike you properly at first glance.
And they’re doing this now in a year where their big three defenders – Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Haloti Ngata – have had perhaps their least amount of impact in some time. Corey Graham has evolved from a special teams ace who never got a consistent shot at playing time with the Bears to the Ravens’ best corner and a life-saver in the absence of Lardarius Webb in a year’s time. Bryant McKinnie has worked himself back into a quality left tackle and, even more improbably, has dropped below 400 pounds while doing so. Anquan Boldin has yet a gain an inch of separation on one of his routes this season but will catch anything he gets his hands on. Though they’re not at their peaks right now, Lewis, Reed, and Ngata remain stalwart and intelligent forces that have refused to give up easy yardage. And Joe Flacco has finally hit one of his patented hot streaks during the postseason – when a guy with THAT BIG of an arm gets hot, suddenly things start looking a lot rosier.
The overall season stats suggest San Francisco is clearly the better team, but Baltimore’s postseason excellence and some questions on the 49ers’ defensive line are enough to dissuade any firm predictions one way or another. Since Justin Smith tore his triceps on December 16th against New England, the 49ers have recorded only five sacks in the following four games – and one of those games was against Arizona, who had been letting everybody sack them at least eight times a game coming in. The complex stunts that Justin Smith performs in tandem with Aldon Smith just haven’t chewed up as many blockers since the injury occurred and that shows up in the stats. Before the injury, the 49ers’ sack rate sat at an above-average 6.4%; since the injury, it’s plummeted to 3.5%. And if San Francisco can’t get to Joe Flacco, that leaves precious extra seconds for Torrey Smith or Jacoby Jones to run lickety-split downfield – Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown are good corners, but no one can keep up with those two over a 50 or 60 yard sprint. San Francisco did NOT play well defensively against either Green Bay or Atlanta and there’s real cause for concern in their pass defense. Hence, Baltimore has a real shot at putting a good point total in this game.
Ultimately, however, it’s the midseason quarterback change – that was perhaps hastened by the last game these two teams played – that may lead the younger Harbaugh brother to hoist the Lombardi Trophy at approximately 9 P.M. New Orleans time Sunday evening and the elder Harbaugh brother to rue yet another close postseason loss. Colin Kaepernick boosts the 49ers’ passing game potential from a “B” to an “A” and, with that, makes the 49ers the most well-rounded team in the league. The Ravens don’t have any glaring weaknesses, either, and have picked an enormous head of steam in the postseason. Plus, if the game comes down to a field goal attempt, Baltimore has to feel quite a bit better about their chances with Justin Tucker than San Francisco currently does with David Akers. But that one letter grade boost at the game’s most important position represents the edge the 49ers will likely need in an otherwise evenly matched game. If San Francisco wins the Super Bowl Sunday night, it will be because they possess one of the brightest, young star quarterbacks in the league and he more than played up to his potential. Who saw that as a potential outcome five months ago?
Projected Final Score: San Francisco 49ers 26, Baltimore Ravens 20
Team to Bet On If Gambling Were Legal: 49ers (-3.5)