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.
20130130-221416.jpg

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.
20130130-221416.jpg
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.

20130130-222926.jpg
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.

20130130-222926.jpg

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.

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.

There’s Still The Who

The Who circa 1975

For me, the NFL season ended yesterday, when my other team, the Minnesota Vikings, fumbled away the NFC Championship Game.

Adrian Peterson Puts Another One On The Ground

Not that they deserved to win. If a team has five turnovers in a championship game, they should be prohibited, by rule, from winning the game. It’s sort of life having a certain number of “lives” in a video game. When Brett Favre threw that last interception in the waning moments of regulation, the words “GAME OVER” should have immediately flashed on the screen.

It is probably just as well, because I’m not sure if I could have taken the sight of Payton Manning rolling up 40 plus points on the Vikings in the Super Bowl. If there’s one thing I learned this weekend, it’s that Indianapolis is much better than the other playoff teams. I know, “on any given Sunday…”, but let’s face it: the only way the Saints win this game is if the Colts have a meltdown, and considering the experience on that roster, that’s very unlikely. I would make Indy a 7-point favorite.

That means that Jim Caldwell will probably get a Super Bowl in his rookie coaching season, though I suspect he’ll not get all of the glory. It’s reminiscent of the Super Bowl George Seifert won with the 49ers in 1989; that team was considered to be Bill Walsh’s team that Seifert was just fortunate to have inherited. For Caldwell, this team is still considered to be Tony Dungy’s team, plus there’ll be a lot of “Who couldn’t win with Payton Manning?” talk, as if Manning had ten rings.

With Manning and Drew Brees on the field, I expect it’ll be an exciting game, but what I’ll be really looking forward to is the halftime show, featuring rock’s second-greatest band ever, The Who. (For the record, my top three goes like this: Beatles, Who, Rolling Stones.) The Who also authored what I believe to the best album of the rock era, Who’s Next (and remember, I’m a Beatles fan, first and foremost).

While I realize that it’s really only half of the Who now, with Keith Moon and John Entwistle being dead, but honestly, it was always Pete and Roger’s band, wasn’t it? The Who has always been a great concert band, and it crosses my mind that this may the last time I ever see them play a live show (albeit on television), so I’m really jazzed.

My son Ryan, who will be 21 in a month, is a Who fan too, and we’ve been discussing with what song they should open the show. I can’t imagine anything other than Baba O’Riley, but he wants it to be Pinball Wizard. So, I’ll put it to you, faithful readers. What song should open the Who’s set?

There’s Still The Vikings

Bud Grant

As a kid growing up in Baltimore, I fell in love with the Minnesota Vikings. How did such a strange thing happen? Accidentally, of course.

I first became an NFL fan in 1973 (that was also the year I started playing pee wee football). At that time, my hometown team, the Baltimore Colts, were between two eras: Johnny Unitas & Bert Jones. They were a terrible team, finishing 4-10 in 1973, and then 2-12 in 1974. So, while they were still my number one team, they were difficult to watch.

One NFL Sunday around this time, the living room console television in my parents’ house was tuned to the NFC game, and what I saw were players dressed in awesome purple uniforms, with horns on their helmets. The dirt field was a mess, it was snowing and they didn’t seem to even notice. Their coach stared impassively out at the field while these purple machines consumed their opponents and spit out the remains on the snow-covered ground. On the sidelines, standing next to players who refused to cover up against the cold, was a guy dressed as a Viking, with a shield and a sword and he was screaming in a sort of blind rage. This, I thought, is how professional football ought to look. And at that moment, I fell in love.

The Vikings defense at that time was called “The Purple People Eaters,” and that they did. As I followed their exploits through the playoffs, I watched as they mugged and beat down one team after another on their march to the Super Bowl.

The Purple People Eaters

Their offense was really good, too. Quarterback Fran Tarkenton was famous for scrambling in the pocket, buying time until a receiver came open. It seemed like one always did.

They also had a great running back, Chuck Foreman, who rushed for a thousand yards in three straight seasons (this was in a fourteen game schedule when rushing for a thousand yards meant something).

In the 1970s, the Vikings finished 1st in their division almost every year, and went to three Super Bowls, losing to each of the era’s AFC powerhouses (Dolphins, Steelers, Raiders) once. No matter, I was hooked on the purple, and as any adult will tell you, childhood addictions tend to stay with you forever.

When the Colts abandoned Baltimore in 1984, I was lucky to have the Vikings as an easy fallback team. They continued to have success, reaching the playoffs seven times between 1987-1996, but they never made it back to the Super Bowl. Still, I was a fan, and was even crazy enough to wear Vikings gear to the Vet in November of 1989 for a game against the Eagles (Herschel Walker returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, but they still managed to lose 10-9).

When the Ravens came to town, I immediately elevated them to my number one team, but my passion for the Vikings remained. (I was thrilled when the team ditched the “Browns” with their hideous color scheme and adopted purple.) I have since seen the Vikings and Ravens play twice in Baltimore, which is always a treat. I still wear Vikings gear, but now it’s on a platoon basis with my Ravens stuff. Every Christmas, one of my football traditions is intertwined purple & gold garland, which remains on display until both the Ravens and Vikings are eliminated. Which brings me to today.

Sadly, midnight came for the Ravens Saturday night, but on the bright side, the Vikings looked great in smashing the super-hyped Cowboys yesterday. So, for now, the purple garland remains, and I get to look forward to the 8th appearance for the Vikings in an NFC Championship game.

In all of this is a lesson: it’s always good to have a fallback option.

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.