John Canton: Here we are. We've previewed the 256 games of the NFL regular season and the previous ten games of the playoffs. Now there's just one game left: Super Bowl XLVII (that's 47).
It's the Baltimore Ravens vs. the San Francisco 49ers. We've all written a lot about the game, so I don't have much more to say during the intro.
As has been the case all year, I'm joined by my friends Bret Clev and Mike Maloney to do this preview thing one more time. Let's jump right to it.
Final Regular Season Standings Straight Up
John 176-79-1 .690
Bret 169-86-1 .663
Mike 169-86-1 .663
Playoffs Straight Up
Mike 7-3 (Last week 1-1)
John 7-3 (1-1)
Bret 7-3 (2-0)
Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans - 6:20pmET
Bret: For some reason, I'm really into this match up. I think it's interesting on multiple layers - and not for the silly storyline stuff - but for the actual on field match up and talent. Unfortunately, I think there is actually better analysis of the game for the conference championships than there is for the Super Bowl - where hype becomes king. So here's my analysis of the play on the field with as little narrative as possible.
Baltimore Offense vs. San Francisco Defense
The importance of Justin Smith continues to be highlighted throughout the playoffs. Without Justin Smith at 100% the pass rush doesn't get the the QB and a 9ers secondary that really is their weak spot gets exposed. That is, I think, the most significant part of this half of the game - Baltimore's ability to stop the pass rush.
I love what Baltimore did, keeping McKinney out until the playoffs. I've been advocating this type of thinking for years (why wouldn't a team pay Brett Favre to play 6 games and the playoffs back in 2009?), and I think it was Baltimore's plan all along. Adding him as a well rested and healthy rock at left tackle has allowed the rest of their line to switch from positions where they are mediocre to positions where they are a plus, making them an above average line overall. I think Oher and Yonda (the best guard in the game) will be able to completely shut down the left side of the 9ers pass rushing, making this a game of the Smiths vs. McKinney and Osemele. That is really one hell of a match up. I expect it to be an absolute battle, and I really don't think you can call. Assuming Smith plus near 100% in the Super Bowl, I think I'd give the slight edge to the 9ers, simply due to Osemele's inexperience and Justin Smith's ability to take advantage of those type of players.
Another interesting, and important battle on this side of the ball will be 1st down. In their last 2 games, Baltimore has struggled on 1st down for significant portions of the game - and shown a real lack of innovations (shut gun, hand off to Rice), while the 9ers have been dedicated to stopping teams on 1st down (best in the league at it) and putting teams in tough down and distance situations. Baltimore will need to come up with a better overall game plan for first down, or they're going to be relying way too much on Flacco in 2nd and 3rd and long.
Flacco is, obviously, another important component in this game, and as much as I'd like to be positive, I really don't think he's played that well in the last two games. In the Denver game - if you take out Rahim Moore's idiocy and Champ Bailey's big time f'up - you're left with a 16 for 32 day for 200 yards. Now, I know you can't take those plays away from him (and he had some great throws rather than those two), but when you watch the game as a whole it was a good game from Joe Flacco, but not a legendary game.
The same goes for the New England game - where the Baltimore coaching staff clearly took advantage of Aqib Talib's injury - and gave Flacco some great opportunities in the the second half - where he had a very good game - but he also made plenty of poor throws in a 1st half that saw the Ravens barely move the ball as well. San Francisco is better at defending the deep ball than either New England or Denver were, and I don't think Torrey Smith will have much success. The gains in the Baltimore offense will come of passes to Boldin in the middle for 7 to 10 yards a gain and the occasional play where Baltimore can get Pitta out wide and get Bowman and Willis out of position trying to guard them.
Flacco is capable of winning a Super Bowl, but he's not going to be able to do it on his own.
A few predicted stat lines:
Flacco 22 of 32 260 yds 1 TD 1 INT 1 Fum
Rice 115 total yards 1 TD
T. Smith 2 rec. 25 yards.
MVP Candidate: Aldon Smith - 2 Sacks 1 FFum, Joe Flacco if Baltimore wins the game - no matter his stats.
San Francisco Offence vs. Baltimore Defense
This match up, I think, really won't have much to do with the read option everyone has been talking about. Despite their softness throughout the year against the run, and their inability to stop teams at the line of scrimmage, Baltimore remains an exceptionally well disciplined defense that will surely have a great plan to stop the read options.
The best way for Baltimore to stop the read option is to smash Kaepernick. Every time. Keep, pitch, hand off. If he carries out his fake, you put him on the ground. I think the Purple Harbaugh is aggressive enough to go with this approach, and if the Gold Harbaugh doesn't back off the read option - we may get an Alex Smith sighting out of it. (And I think it will be the NFL's answer to the read option fad as well next year. When a QB is carrying out a fake, he's fair game to be taken to the ground, if you're a defense, you assign the last man on your line to do that every time. No one wants their QB going down that much and they'll knock it off real quick.)
One last note on the read/option I've thought of - Suggs could be the read man when the 9ers run his way, and I wonder if his still partially healed Achilles might cause him to be just too slow to defend the play and we'll see a huge day in the running game from the 9ers optioning off him.
With the read option neutralized ( and if it's not neutralized it could be a long day for Baltimore), we'll see a more traditional pistol offense (run/pass option audibles) against a sophisticated Baltimore defense that could really be a hell of a chess match to watch. As much as I disliked the Baltimore defense throughout the year, I have to say that I've seen the play of guys like Ellerbe and Kruger improve to the point where they may be the 2nd and 3rd best players on the defense (behind the rock that is Ngata). I certainly respect this defense, and think in a traditional running game they'll be able to hold down Gore and James (who I think has started to be way overrated in the playoffs). Where I think Baltimore will be in trouble is against Crabtree and Davis. Kaepernick has shown himself able to run the play action/vertical play very well - I'm not sure that Baltimore will be able to defend both guys down the seam on that play - Reed will certainly be in the right place, but the rest of the Ravens secondary has been pretty terrible against the play action throughout the season. I think there's at least one big play there for the 9ers.
As per usual with Baltimore - the real game here is the Baltimore defense vs. the opposing offense - and that's what I'll most be looking forward to in this game.
A few predicted stat lines:
Kaepernick: 19-27 250 yards, 5 rushes for 26 yards. 1 TD 1 INT
Gore 26 rushes, 112 yards 2 TDs
Crabtree 5 rec. 85 yards. TD
MVP Candidates: Kaepernick, Gore, Lewis (they'll suddenly claim the tackles are important) if Baltimore wins.
I don't see special teams playing a big role in this game - Neither team has a real home run hitter in the return game. Both teams have above average punters (and Andy Lee might be the best in the NFL right now) while Baltimore has the clear advantage at kicker, and if I were a 9ers fan I'd pray this game doesn't come down to a kick off Akers' foot.
It's pretty clear I'm taking San Francisco here. Baltimore certainly has a chance if the game falls their way, but I like San Fran.
San Francisco 27 Baltimore 20
Mike: Such a bittersweet time for us football fans. The biggest game of the season also marks the end of the season and the beginning of the six month void in our lives until training camp and the preseason starts up. At least there's free agency, the combine, and the draft to tide us over.
As far as the last game of the year goes, as of right now I'm still not sure who I think is going to win. I can pretty easily see both teams winning, and I don't agree with the idea that San Francisco should be a huge favorite in this game. They are probably the team that is more likely to win in a blow out fashion, but I also think Baltimore has a lot of things going its way as well.
First, a few things on the Niners. They ran the ball incredibly well against the Packers, both Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick. It was pretty clear that this was both a personnel matchup problem for Green Bay as well as an error in defensive strategy that allowed San Francisco to go off like they did. Against Atlanta, with the secret out about their pistol offense and a front seven that was more up to the task, the Falcons forced the ball out of Kaepernick's hands (Only two carries for 21 yards) and made Frank Gore make the most of things. He did okay, running 21 times for 90 yards, but never had a carry of longer than 11 yards and all things considered was relatively contained. I'd expect their run game to look more like it did against Atlanta when they play the Ravens. I don't know that there are any more big strategy changes they can make running the ball, and containing the more dangerous Kaepernick and forcing him to hand off to Frank Gore was a good gameplan for Atlanta and something they would be better off mimicking.
If they can't be dominant running the ball they're going to have to turn to their pass game. Kaepernick had a much more efficient game against Atlanta than he did against the Packers. However, this isn't a huge surprise when you figure Atlanta's primary weakness in pass defense was covering the linebacker position, and Vernon Davis proceeded to go off for 106 yards on 5 catches. That being said, Vernon Davis had virtually dropped off the radar after Kaepernick took over at QB, and against a Baltimore team that is much more capable of covering the TE position, so I wouldn't be shocked if Davis was kept relatively in check. I think it's safe to say that the Niners are going to need a big game from Michael Crabtree if they're going to win this game.
Defensively there are a couple of areas to keep an eye on. In two games in the postseason so far, the Smith brothers have combined for 12 tackles, 2 QB hits, and no sacks. This after combining for 122 tackles and 22.5 sacks in the regular season. Yes, Justin Smith has come back from his triceps injury and has played in the playoffs, but I'd argue that he hasn't looked like the same dominant player and it's affected both his play and Aldon Smith's play. And the line as a whole needs to do a better job against the run. Yes, Atlanta was largely contained on the ground (Only averaging 3.5ypc), but Atlanta has also statistically been a terrible rushing team this year, so maybe it was to be expected. I still think their performance against the Packers in which they gave up 6.5ypc and 4.8ypc to DuJuan Harris is cause for concern. The other question is how effective their secondary can be against Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin. James Jones, Julio Jones, Roddy White, these are all physical strong receivers and they all had very good games against the Niners. Torrey Smith is obviously more of a speed/finesse guy, but Anquan Boldin is as physical as it gets. Between him and Dennis Pitta, the Niners pass defense should have its hands full.
On the other side of things, Baltimore continues to confuse and amaze me. Joe Flacco has been the best quarterback in the playoffs, throwing for 853 yards 8 TDs and no INTs in three games. Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin have consistently played pretty well, and the line has been giving Flacco time to throw. The one area that could be a concern is the run game, which has been okay, but not great thus far in the postseason. The one thing that could prove to be a gift for them is Bernard Pierce, who has somehow managed to run for 169 yards in the last three games, and has shown to be a great complement to Ray Rice. If the Ravens can emulate what Green Bay was able to do in the first half of their game against the Niners and find formations that will expose their run defense, that could be the thing that turns the game in their favor.
But it's not really their offense that confuses me the most. Sure, they look predictable and stale at times (Jim Caldwell is their offensive coordinator after all), but overall it's a talented offense and they've played like it. But the defense appeared to be an average defense at best, especially when they lost one of their best defenders in LaDarius Webb earlier in the season. They weren't great at stopping the run, and their pass defense was inconsistent at best. But now, the last two games we've seen them render two good rushing attacks (Denver and New England) largely ineffective. Their secondary still looks somewhat vulnerable, but they've also been very physical, hard hitting, and they've been forcing turnovers. And they've gone on the road and beaten both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady back-to-back. So I don't know if it's because they're a little less banged up than they have been all season, or if as an older defense maybe they know when to turn it on, but whatever it is, it's working.
Last thing is the coaching matchup. I've heard something about the head coaches being related somehow, I dunno, maybe that's just some rumor that's floating out there. Both guys are really good head coaches, I might give Jim the slight edge over John at least from a strategy standpoint, but I think highly of both of them. Both guys are going to have two weeks to strategize and come up with a game plan and any special wrinkles they might want to throw in there, so I'm not sure there's going to be much of an advantage either way.
How do I see this game playing out? I expect Baltimore to find success running the ball, at least enough that the defense won't be able to focus solely on the passing game. I expect Anquan Boldin to have a big game, and I think at most Baltimore is going to turn the ball over once. I think San Francisco blew its was against Green Bay running out of the pistol formation as much as they did (To be fair I think they had to), and I think it makes their run game a little more predictable. The Niners should do fine running the ball, but it won't be a game changer for them. Ultimately San Francisco doesn't have enough talent in their receiving corp and it's going to cost them. You need to go deeper than just Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis (and no, Randy Moss doesn't count). Joe Flacco seems destined to become the AFC's Eli Manning; someone who inexplicably makes huge plays in the playoffs despite a less than impressive regular season. Plus, the world just wouldn't be right if Randy Moss gets a ring.
Baltimore 28 San Francisco 24
John: I know that the main hype for this game revolves around the head coaches that are brothers with Jim Harbaugh coaching the Niners and John Harbaugh coaching the Ravens. In terms of how the teams are built, they both come into the game with strong defenses that carried them to road wins during Championship weekend. Both teams have Pro Bowl running backs too, so you know they're going to want to run the ball. The question is can they find success running? If the answer to that is no then do you like the drop back deep ball passing of Joe Flacco or the run/pass mix of Colin Kaepernick? My answer to that one is Kaepernick.
While I will agree with anybody that points out that Joe Flacco has played very well in the Ravens three playoff wins (8 TD, 0 INT), I don't think he's played a defense as good as the Niners during their playoff run. The Niners rank 4th against the run and the pass, so they've got the kind of defense that give teams fits if they aren't used to them. If you saw the Niners especially in the second half of this year the only kind of teams that gave them problems were divisional opponents that knew them (Seahawks & Rams). Every other victory was a decisive one. That's why I'm hesitant to believe in the Ravens offense. If you aren't familiar with the Niners and don't know how to find holes in their defense it's going to be a long night for your offense. I think the Ravens have a talented offense with Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith & Dennis Pitta, but they don't do anything to fool you. They throw deep down the sideline and find Rice out of the backfield. I think a disciplined defense like the Niners are going to keep everything in front of them just like they did against the Falcons. No big plays. That's what the Ravens thrive on.
As I shift the focus to the Niners offense, I like what they've done during the playoffs. They take what the defense gives them. Against the Packers they run the ball because the running lanes were there. When they played the Falcons, Kaepernick only rushed the ball two times for 21 yards as opposed to his 181 yards on 16 rushes against the Packers. As a team they rushed for 323 yards versus the Packers. Against the Falcons it was 149 yards rushing, but it was the passing game that told the story in that one. That's why I like the Niners a lot right now. If it's not Kaepernick taking advantage of what the defense gives him then he'll hand it off to Frank Gore or throw it down the field to Michael Crabtree (who really broke out this year), Vernon Davis or maybe even the veteran Randy Moss. The Niners don't have that many weapons in the passing game, but Crabtree has looked fantastic with Kaepernick running the show. Their chemistry is great.
The last time they played was Thanksgiving 2011 when the Ravens won 16-6. Why did the Niners only score six points in that game? Because they lacked explosive players. Why do you think they inserted Kaepernick in the lineup? He's a game changer. The interesting thing about that game also is that the Ravens touchdown game late in the fourth quarter, so it was a really defensive game from the beginning. The difference this time is instead of playing outdoors in the November they're playing in the warm confines of a dome this time around. That's why I really don't see it being a low scoring game like that last game was for them.
I think this game will follow the same pattern as the Niners last game against the Falcons. What I mean by that is they will make the right halftime adjustments and completely shut down the Ravens offense in the second half. That's something the Niners have done all year long. Not only do they wear teams out (ten points allowed in 2nd half of two playoff games), but Jim Harbaugh is arguably the best coach in the league at picking up on what the opponent is doing. He's also coached Kaepernick so well that he knows to take what the defense gives him. That's why I believe in San Fran. I think they have proven they can beat teams in different ways and when it comes to the Super Bowl that's what you need to walk out with the trophy at the end of the night.
As far as the score goes, I like the Niners to get the win 27-17 because I think they're going to be able to run the ball whether it's with Gore or Kaepernick and in doing that they will control the clock more than the Ravens. If the Niners control the clock then their defense will be fresh and it will be very difficult for the Ravens to score more than two touchdowns on them.
From a betting perspective, I'm probably going to make a wager on the Niners -3.5, but only because it's the last game of a profitable season for me. Both teams are undefeated in the playoffs against the spread, which isn't always the case. The over/under number is at 47 points, so with my 27-17 prediction that means I think it will be an under. However, I doubt I'll make that bet. We usually have a lot of silly prop bets during the game at the party I'll be at, so that keeps things interesting.
I think by the end of the night we'll see Jim Harbaugh embracing the second year QB that he took a risk on as Colin Kaepernick holds the Super Bowl trophy and the MVP trophy as well. I think Kaepernick will throw for two touchdowns and run for the game winner as the Niners defense brings it home in the fourth quarter.
San Francisco 27 Baltimore 17
The Degenerates Dungeon
This is where we give you some picks for our best bets of the week.
Regular Season Records
John 6-3 (2-1 Last Week)
Mike 2-5 (1-0)
Bret 1-3 (1-0)
Here are some prop bets for the Super Bowl.
1. Baltimore +1/2 1st quarter
Betting on a good defense to beat a rookie QB in the early stages of a Super Bowl seems like a smart bet.
2. Vonta Leach 1st rushing attempt under 1.5 yards. (-150)
Wins even if he doesn't have a rush. He's only had a rush in about half the games this year (9 in 19).
3. Jacoby Jones 1st reception under 9.5 (-110)
Since Christmas, Jones has caught a whopping 2 passes over 9 yards.
4. Andy Lee Longest punt (+105)
The guy's the best punter in the league and he's getting juice? I'll take it.
5. San Francisco over Baltimore (+807)
You'd have this bet if you listened to me 2 weeks ago and put it on then!
These two are still pending from last week.
NFC +2.5 to win the Super Bowl.
San Francisco beats Baltimore in the Super Bowl. (+807) Imagine how good you'll feel having 8 to 1 odds on a 3.5 point favorite!
I'll take San Francisco -3.5 just to make it interesting. I'm sure I'll make prop bets on Sunday when I'm bored during the day, but for right now that's the only one I'm making.
That's it for us. I'll probably write something for Monday, but as far as our picks go that's all there is for this season.
I want to thank my good friends Bret and Mike for joining me for this all year long. I think all of us did well in our predictions, but of course I won so I did the best. Deal with it, fellas! See ya next season. Go Rams.
You can also email John Canton at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments.