Impressed, Unimpressed: Why The Ravens Will Win Super Bowl XLVII

When I attempt to size up the teams playing in Super Bowl XLVII this Sunday, I first look at the path each took to get here. This gives me an idea of how well the team is playing against better opposition, in its most recent games. Let’s start with the 49ers.

After its first-round bye, San Francisco comfortably won a home game against the Green Bay Packers. For a few fleeting days before this, many “experts” had been saying that the Packers were a team that “no one wants to see.” This baffled me.

The Packers blew a chance to clinch the second seed and a first round bye against a mediocre Vikings team in week 17, and then beat the same team at home, after the Vikings were forced to play the forgettable Joe Webb for an injured Christian Ponder. This is the team the 49ers defeated after a week’s rest at home. Sorry, but McKayla and I were not impressed.
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Then, the 49ers played an Atlanta Falcons team that I never really bought into. The Falcons played too many bad games in 2012 that they somehow managed to win, and I never expected them to get to the Super Bowl. When the Falcons gagged against the Seahawks, and came within seconds of blowing an easy win, my doubts were reinforced.

Against the 49ers, Atlanta again jumped out to a big lead, and again tanked in the second half, allowing the game to slip away. Even so, they still might have beaten San Francisco had Matt Ryan seen a wide open Tony Gonzales at the end of the game. But he didn’t, and predictably, the 49ers survived. Once again, we were not impressed.
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The Ravens on the other hand, playing without a bye week, took care of business at home against Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts, and then traveled to Denver as 10 point underdogs to take on Peyton Manning and the #1 seed Broncos. Despite giving up 14 special teams points, the Ravens refused to give in and rallied for one of the most exciting wins in franchise history. McKayla and I were very impressed.

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Not content with that, the Ravens then went out and beat Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in Foxborough. Joe Flacco lit up what was supposed to be a formidable Patriots defense and just to make the point, the Ravens shut out Tom Terrific in the second half – in his own house. We were again very impressed.

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So now, having beaten Peyton Manning and Tom Brady on the road, in freezing conditions on successive weeks, I’m supposed to be afraid of Colin Kaepernick? OK, right.

I’m sure that Kaepernick is a great weapon, and may be the reason the 49ers are in the Super Bowl, but it seems to me that his success is almost entirely dependent on the opposing defense’s mistakes. Given two weeks to prepare, I just don’t see the veteran Ravens defense breaking assignments often enough to allow Kaepernick to be a game-changer. (He’s not Superman. It’s not like no one’s ever won against Kaepernick; he lost twice in the last two months of the regular season.)

What I expect the Ravens to do is to allow Kaepernick small successes, and force him into 12-14 play drives, with many third-downs. In short, they’ll play smart, assignment football, deny him the big play, and force him to work hard for every score. Even if the 49ers convert 7 out of 14 third down opportunities, that’s seven times they have to punt or kick a field goal, ending the drive.

Also bear in mind that it took the Ravens two series to figure out RGIII, who they later broke. (Yes, they lost in Washington, but not because of Griffin.)

The beginning of the end for RGIII

The beginning of the end for RGIII

 

 

 

 

 

On the flip side, I expect Flacco to throw well against the 49ers secondary. After two games in arctic-like conditions, passing in a dome will be like a dream come true for Joe, and the Niners secondary is no match for the Ravens receivers. Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones will stretch the field, while Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta work underneath.

And then there’s Ray Rice, who is incredibly dangerous either rushing or catching passes. For the 49ers defense, it’ll be pick-your-poison.

In the end, I expect Kaepernick and the 49ers to score between 21-24 points on Sunday, while I look for Flacco and the Ravens to hang 28-35 on the scoreboard.

In this game, the intangibles also favor the Ravens, such as the “underdog-no respect” card, Ray’s Last Ride, the “team of destiny” thing, and the depth of veteran, playoff-experienced players. This is why Baltimore bends, but never breaks.

Of course, special teams and turnovers are always a wild card, and if Flacco goes cold for some reason, all bets are off.

Ultimately, I see the final score as something like 31-24 Baltimore, and if Joe Flacco throws for 250-300 yards with one interception or less, I don’t think anything San Francisco does on offense will matter.

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Why the Pro Bowl Will Never Catch On

Like most Americans, I completely ignored the NFL’s Pro Bowl yesterday. This, despite the fact that I’m an NFL fan and a Ravens’ fan (four Ravens played in the game).

The NFL changed both the venue and the timing of this year’s Pro Bowl, hoping to somehow change the overwhelming odor of irrelevancy that hovers around the game. The truth is, no matter when or where the game is played, the game lacks any compelling drama, and the fault lies within the nature of football itself.

The reason that the baseball all-star game (more so when I was a kid than now, however) and the NBA all-star game are entertaining is that they work in harmony with their respective sports. Baseball and basketball are very much games played by individuals, where one-on-one match-ups often determine the outcomes, and always create topics for debate.

Baseball is little more than a series of individual contests, strung together so that everyone has a turn in the limelight. Batter vs. pitcher, runner vs. pitcher, runner vs. catcher, runner vs. fielder, etc. Almost half of a game’s put-outs are registered by an individual acting alone. It’s very much the type of sport that benefits from an all-star atmosphere, where the game’s titans battle each other one at a time, allowing the spectator to savor the glory of the triumphant and the agony of the vanquished. The faces of the combatants are uncovered, allowing us a look into the emotion of the sport, pitch by pitch.

Basketball benefits similarly, as the giants of the NBA sprint, leap and fly past each other, all the while laughing and taunting each other. The field of play is small, and the participants are in close proximity to each other. More important, however, are the individual competitions within the game that can be focused on by the announcers.

What these individual contests do is to give a weightless game a small bit of mass. You can almost hear the announcers: “Yes, the game doesn’t count in the standings, but it’s matter of pride between these players; no one wants to be shown up by another.” The personal nature of the individual match-ups creates tension where they should be none, and thus a meaningless game becomes watchable (once the egos get involved).

But football, unlike baseball and basketball, is a team sport. This Sunday, we’ll be looking at how Drew Brees and the Saints will perform against the Colts’ defense, not Gary Brackens. And while Drew Brees might be at the top of his game, if his left tackle, or center, or running back misses his assignment on a given play, that play’s chances of succeeding are greatly diminished.

The drama of eleven players, pushed and tested over a period of months together, with each depending on each other on every down, is almost impossible to replicate in an all-star game. As a result, the Pro Bowl, with its collection of week-old teammates, seems like a farcical, synthetic reproduction of what football really is – the ultimate team sport. And that’s why no one watches it.

The truth is that there’s nothing the NFL can do to fix the Pro Bowl because the character of the game condemns it to perpetual insignificance. Its existence is an anomaly in the NFL, an embarrassing failure in the midst of unparalleled successes – a professional sports version of Coca-Cola with Lime. We are only left to wonder for how many more years the league will persist in foisting this monstrosity on the public.

I put the over/under at 4.

MyUMBC Goes Ravens Purple

With the Ravens in the playoffs again, it’s neat to see everything in town going purple, like City Hall:

UMBC is getting in on the fun, too. For example, when the Ravens are in the playoffs, the top of the AOK Library goes purple:

I know in this photo it looks blue, but trust me, it's purple.

And now, the MyUMBC web portal has joined the mania:

I hope there’s a reason to keep that color up for a few more weeks, a least!

Terry Bradshaw Doesn’t Think Much Of The Ravens This Week

FoxSports asked Terry Bradshaw to “write” a column about this week’s playoff matchups. From what I can discern, it seems that Terry doesn’t like the Ravens’ chances against the Colts:

“Ravins at Coltz: Its the same darn thin fer them ther Ravins as wit them ther Jetz. Them Ravins peepel our luv to run that ther Football. Boy Howdy butt they du! Wir seein that ther guy Joe Flacko ther du a littel bit, butt hes mostlee handin off to that ther guy Ray Rice guy an that Willie MaGahee guy. To hav any kinda chans, them Ravins got to run fer at leest 180 yard, boy howdy! Now, if them ther Ravins can cuntrol that ther clock with that ther run, Baltimoor can limt limmit limit stop the numbr of oportoonities fer Paytin Manin. Butt them ther Ravins hav to scor, to. Them ther Ravins jus cant keep it fer eight nine minits an git three poynts. Butt I don see how them ther Ravins beet them ther Coltz, who our so splosive on awffense.

I been feelin bettur abawt Indee beetin them ther Ravins thin aneebode neckz weekn. Ifn I had to bet on anee of these ther games an I had 100 fer to sav my life ther, Im mor cumfertible betin on Paytin Manin agin them ther Ravins ther. No disspectin now to them, butt, boy howdy I do thin them ther Jetz will cum closir to beetin them ther Charjirs thin them ther Ravins will ginst Indee.

What doed I thin of Paytin winin his foorth NVP? Im not sur it ment as much to him as much it wuld hav ment to that ther Droo Breez as much, who has nevr gotin it, I don thin. I lik to spred this ward round, boy howdy. I meen, you culd giv to Paytin evry yeer, butt how culd you not giv it to that ther Breez guy? What duz he hav to do to git it? What duz Kris Jonsun down ther in Teneseee got to do to git it? I aways ask myselfs who steped up an had credible year. It wuld hav bin grat fer the MFL, becuz Droo is evry bit as gud a guy and a playr as Paytin is.

An I shud know sumthin bout them ther quarbacks, boy howdy!”

Well said, Terry. Well said.

(The FoxSports link to Terry’s column after his editors had polished it for publication.)

The Ravens Road-Field Advantage

Here’s the Ravens’ playoff history (road games in bold):

Jan. 10, 2010 AFC Wild Card Baltimore 33, New England 14
Jan. 18, 2009 AFC Championship Pittsburgh 23, Baltimore 14
Jan. 10, 2009 AFC Divisional Baltimore 13, Tennessee 10
Jan. 4, 2009 AFC Wild Card Baltimore 27, Miami 9
Jan. 13, 2007 AFC Divisional Indianapolis 15, Baltimore 6
Jan. 3, 2004 AFC Wild Card Tennessee 20, Baltimore 17
Jan. 20, 2002 AFC Divisional Pittsburgh 27, Baltimore 10
Jan. 13, 2002 AFC Wild Card Baltimore 20, Miami 3
Jan. 28, 2001 Super Bowl XXXV Baltimore 34, N.Y. Giants 7 (neutral site)
Jan. 14, 2001 AFC Championship Baltimore 16, Oakland 3
Jan. 7, 2001 AFC Divisional Baltimore 24, Tennessee 10
Dec. 31, 2000 AFC Wild Card Baltimore 21, Denver 3

When you look at the record, you see that the Ravens are only 1-2 in home playoff games, and haven’t won a home playoff game since Bill Clinton was president. Yet the Ravens are 6-2 (.750) all-time on the road in the playoffs. Taking it a little farther, the Ravens are undefeated in road playoff games that don’t involve going to Pittsburgh (IMPORTANT: the Steelers aren’t in the playoffs this year).

Playing at home is supposed to be a huge advantage in the NFL. Isn’t that what all of the talk is about in November and December, securing home-field advantage? For some teams, however, there’s another factor that may be even more important, and that’s playing with emotion (as was so clearly demonstrated yesterday). I think for the Ravens, playing with a chip on their shoulders in a hostile environment, knowing that in order to win they must out-physical their opponent and take the fans out of the game, is a key component to victory. Also, don’t discount the ability to more easily get focused on the road, where there are fewer distractions.

Remember Brian Billick’s fiery speech about going into the lion’s den? That speech doesn’t work if your team is the favorite. When you’re at home in the playoffs, you’re probably expected to win. It’s hard to “kick the door in and shout ‘Where is the Son-of-a-Bitch?” when it’s your door and you are the “Son-of-a Bitch.” Let’s admit it, some teams don’t need to play with emotion (Colts, Patriots). The Ravens do.

So, in the future, let’s not root for the Ravens to get home playoff games; we know the winning formula now. But here and now, I suddenly feel really good about our chances, because the road to Miami doesn’t go through Baltimore.

Ravens Traditions: The Flag Flies Again!

My Ravens Playoff Flag

Because I’m a bit OCD, I tend to accumulate a lot of what I call “traditions.” These are things that must be done at certain times, in certain ways, every time. My holiday routine is a prime example. Another example are my Ravens routines.

We have one of those decorative seasonal banner posts in front of our house, on which we rotate appropriate displays. During the summer months, from it hangs a rustic American flag-type banner. At the start of each Ravens season, I hang the Ravens banner, which will remain until the team takes its first loss, after which time it will be replaced by our generic autumn banner. This banner returns in January should the Ravens make the playoffs, and stays until they are eliminated.

Similarly, the 3′ x 5′ Ravens flag is hoisted on the day the Ravens qualify for the postseason, and remains until they get knocked out, when it is immediately removed. When I come and go from my house, seeing that the big Ravens flag still flies can be a misty moment.

Inside the house there are traditions, too. As a part of my Christmas decorations, I use intertwined purple and gold garland around the living rooms windows to reflect my allegiance not just to the Ravens, but also to my secondary team, the Minnesota Vikings. (I became a Vikings fan at age 7, back when Fran Tarkenton and the Purple People Eaters ruled the NFC. They were a good backup to the Colts during some lean years, and then, when the Colts left, the Vikings filled in quite nicely until the Ravens arrived.) This garland will be in place until neither the Ravens nor the Vikings are alive in the playoffs.

Some items exist without regulation, such as the inexpensive vinyl tablecloth, which is in use for much of the football season, but is removed occasionally for cleaning:

And then there are other items that get added haphazardly, and, because they are small, end up in place year-round. Falling into this category is a beaded necklace with a paper message that was given to us sometime last year, and now permanently resides on a curio cabinet in the living room.

Of course, there are apparel traditions to uphold as well. While the Ravens still play, I observe Purple Fridays at work, sometimes adding my gold UMBC necktie. My wife, who works in the medical field, wears Ravens scrubs to work on the Monday following a game. On game days in warm weather, I wear my Ray Lewis jersey, switching over to one particular long-sleeve jersey/sweater once the weather shifts. My wife usually wears her Joe Flacco jersey, but she’s not neurotic about it like I am.

So, now that the Ravens are in the playoffs, the flag flies once more. Let’s just hope it has a chance to get a bit weathered before I’m forced to haul it down again.

The Ravens Don’t Lack Discipline

This morning there’s a lot of talk about how undisciplined the Ravens are, and how John Harbaugh’s coaching should be scrutinized for having allowed this state of affairs to go uncorrected. To all of this, I say:

Be careful what you wish for – you just may get it.

The Ravens’ love affair with aggression goes all the way back to 2000 – our beloved Super Bowl season. The team was encouraged to be nasty, to be angry, to be mouthy. The Ravens were the team that would kick down your door and shout “Where is the son of a bitch?” The organization wanted its players to be intimidators; the result was spectacular and we loved it. But, there was a price to be paid, because the NFL was paying attention, too. Soon, it became clear that the crews officiating the Ravens games were looking at the team a little more closely than its opponents. No matter, as long as the Ravens were winning games, the penalties could be tolerated.

This mindset has been passed on genetically ever since, and the result has been a team that we have grown to love for its intensity and its passion; we have also learned to expect them to take penalties that seem unnecessary and at times, ridiculous. And yes, every now and then, they have a collective meltdown (21 penalties against Detroit in October, 2005, 13 penalties for 100 yards against New England in December 2007). Still, winning solves everything.

(The Oakland Raiders were the most penalized team of the 1970s, and no one criticized them for being undisciplined. Instead they were hated and feared. Being a consistently winning organization will do that for you.)

Harbaugh accepted this position knowing the culture – a culture that has been cultivated for a decade; to expect him to eradicate that in a year or two is unreasonable and more to the point, not a good idea.┬áMost of these same “undisciplined” players took this team to the AFC Championship game last year, and no one called them to task for over-aggression. (Remember? The big complaint last year was that the offense was one dimensional.) What’s different this year? New faces in prominent places are committing the penalties now; not because they’re undisciplined, but because they’re not as good as the individuals they’ve replaced.

The ugly fact is that offensive linemen hold when they get beat; so do defensive backs. Would you rather that the offensive lineman let young Joe Flacco get hit rather than risk a holding penalty? (For the answer to this question, ask David Carr.) Would you rather the burned defensive back just give up the big play, rather than risk an illegal contact penalty? If you want to eliminate penalties in the offensive line and defensive secondary, don’t preach discipline – get better players.

One big problem with the whole “coaching discipline” idea is that you don’t want players on the field thinking – you want them reacting. When Terrell Suggs got flagged for a block in the back on Domonique Foxworth’s interception yesterday, he was doing what he should have been doing – trying to block downfield for his teammate. The problem isn’t that Sugg is undisciplined, it’s that he isn’t a very good blocker. How much time do you want Suggs spending in practice learning how to avoid blocking-in-the-back penalties?

Yes, the Ravens are a heavily penalized team, but they’re in good company. In fact, 5 of the top 6 most-penalized teams in 2009 would make the playoffs if the season ended today. On the other hand, the Browns have committed over 30 fewer penalties than the Ravens. Do you still want the Ravens to make “discipline” a focal point of its team philosophy?

Be careful what you wish for – you just may get it.