Before going any further I should point out that when the season started I did pick the Ravens to make it to Super Bowl, against either the Niners or Packers (I've asked Gnat to check our first Sunday Night show or our Americarnage podcast to remind me; sadly I think it was the Pack). I don't think I picked anyone to win—which is lucky, because Super Bowl 47 is a really tough pick—I'd rather wager on whether Jay Z will appear onstage with Beyonce at halftime!
With all the hype over the Harbaugh Bros., one thing that is getting lost in translation is that this Super Bowl is Tavares Gooden Bowl! It's also Greg Roman/Vic Fangio Bowl! Both the Niners' coordinators used to coach in Baltimore (Fangio actually did twice, first with the USFL Stars!). Seriously, though, this Super Bowl is the first match-up of two big upfront, physical pound-it-at-you teams in many years. It's a throwback in that sense, although the contrast in offensive styles is where the real fascination will lie: between these two 3-4 defenses you could almost make a Pro Bowl starting team, and how each team chooses to attack the other's D will in large part determine the result.
The Ravens are like the Giants of 2007 or 2011, the Packers of 2010, a team which struggled through the season, only to get hot at the end and roar through the playoffs. In fact, with dominant wins in both Denver and Foxborough, you might be surprised to find Baltimore the underdogs in New Orleans. It's hard to explain, beyond injuries and Cam Cameron, why the Ravens weren't more impressive throughout the bulk of the season; hell, if the refs call a clipping penalty on Anquan Boldin or spot the ball correctly, Ray Rice's miracle catch and run against the Chargers falls short, and the Ravens' playoff run becomes that much more difficult. But when we saw the Ravens on Sunday Night against the Pats early in the season, it seemed like Cam Squared had broken out of his coordinating shell, and with a no-huddle he was able to get the one-on-one matchups downfield he thought he could win. That didn't last long, eventually Cam was fired, and Jim Caldwell took over. It would be nice to say Caldwell's changed things around, but if anything, he was as basic in his approach as Cameron, at least until they met the Pats two weeks ago, when they killed New England with crossing routes underneath their safeties, who were playing to deny the Ravens the deep pass.
Actually, what happened for Baltimore was two-fold. On offense, Bryant McKinnie finally got into enough shape to play, which moved Michael Oher back to right tackle, and rookie Kelechi Osemele to left guard. This is not a finesse group of blockers, though with Osemele and Marshall Yanda it means both their guards can pull and play in space. I thought McKinnie and Oher in particular got away with a lot of holding against Denver, but against New England they didn't have to hold: now, facing the Smith Bros, Justin and Aldon, McKinnie will have his work cut out for him, and Ahmad Brooks can challenge Oher.
On defense, the Ravens needed to get Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis back from injury, and although Haloti Ngata has played all year, he's been far from 100%. All three players have looked closer to full speed, and Lewis' recovery is a tribute (allegedly) to the power of New Zealand deer. When Jameel McClain was hurt, Lewis was able to step in, and although he wasn't close to full speed at first, the immediate effect was to make Dannell Ellerbee a better player. It's also a tribute to GM Ozzie Newsome that the Ravens could lose their top corner, Lardarius Webb, early in the year, and still have enough depth to survive.
As we saw against the Pats, the Ravens don't need to make many adjustments—they will take a nose tackle out for nickle, but when they are in nickel Ngata in effect becomes the nose, and he is far more disruptive than Cody or Keomeaku. Stopping the Niners various read-option, veer, and wham plays starts with penetrating in the middle, blowing up the movement area for blockers pulling or trapping. Then you have to set the edges, and in Suggs and Paul Kruger, the Ravens have outside backers who can do that. The real key will be Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed, because the way the Ravens play zone often leaves their safeties having the outside responsibility—think of how many times you've seen these guys read a play and get to the edge before the runner turns the corner.
Offensively, Baltimore will probably see a two-deep safety look similar to what the Pats showed, but the Niner safeties are much better than New England's. The Niner corners aren't as good as the rest of their D, but they're better than New England's options once Aqib Talib went down. Still, Boldin has shown he can win man matchups, and Torrey Smith can beat anyone deep. The middle of the field will be tougher against those safeties and Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman as the inside backers—like the Ravens the Niners don't have to change personnel much, so no-huddle doesn't bother them as much as it does most teams. Willis tends to take tight ends, Bowman tends to take the running back, and that means Dennis Pitta and Ray Rice need to win those matchups. I thought the biggest play of the Ravens' win over the Pats might have been Rice's conversion of a long third down when he should have been caught in the backfield for a loss on a busted screen. He's the guy who can generate something out of nothing. Joe Flacco has proven how good he can be when the pocket gets all messed up, keeping plays alive, and the most interesting thing about him is that he has never missed a game yet in his career.
One of the most telling stats about this game is that the Niners are the best team in the league, both offensively and defensively, on first down, while the Ravens are the best on third. What that means is that San Francisco needs to keep third down manageable, and avoid the one-dimensional downs that allow the Ravens to pass-rush all-out, and it also means they have to contain the Ravens on the inevitable third and longs they seem to get after Ray Rice is stopped for a short gain, or Flacco throws incomplete downfield. But the Niner defense has not been the same since Justin Smith injured his biceps: he's had less time, and presumably less deer antler, to recover, and with his operating at less than 100 per cent, Aldon Smith has been much less effective and the Niners have had much less penetration.
The beauty of the Niner offense is that it is so well-balanced, and so multiple. The weird thing is that, statistically, and in terms of the team's record, Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick are a wash—yet no one doubts that Kaepernick's bigger arm and better running ability make the Niners more dangerous. Since Kendall Hunter got hurt, and Brandon Jacobs went into a sulk, they've slowly integrated LaMichael James into their offense: that veer-option score he had against the Falcons. But the match-ups they may like best: Michael Crabtree on a corner or Vernon Davis on a linebacker, may be harder to arrange—I'd expect them to run from some formations we haven't seen in an effort to get mismatches they like.
Kaepernick is the wild card. Given the extra week to think about the build-up and the hype, many people are worried he might react like a rookie. I'm not as concerned about that as about the possible effect of the Raven rush. One of the things the Niners' dominant run game does is slow down the pass rush. Kaepernick can make plays, but he's going to find the Ravens are one of, if not the, smartest and most athletic pursuit teams out there. Just ask Tom Brady, who decided he couldn't beat Haloti Ngata to a corner.
The other side of the equation is that Flacco is almost as much of a wild card. He can make throws under pressure, and he has the ability to be accurate far downfield like few other QBs in the league. At the start of this analysis I was comparing Baltimore to the Giants and Packers of the past few years, and what the Ravens share with those teams is a defense that can make big plays and a quarterback who can do the same. In the final analysis, my head is saying the Niners are the better team, and my gut is saying the Ravens are the team that can keep it close and then find a way to win, especially if it comes down to kickers. I've been burned trusting my brains before, but pick: Niners
THE DEER HUNTER
Whether or not Ray Lewis actually sprayed New Zealand Deer Antler Velvet Extract under his tongue, there are a few of familiar elements to the story. Hearing Ray deny that he used a banned substance, and point out he's never failed a drug test had the unfortunate effect of making him sound like Lance Armstrong. Here, of course, the rationale has more basis than a corrupt cycling world provided, because, of course, the NFL does no blood testing, and blood testing would be the only way to discover traces of IFG-1, which is the stuff in you liver that HGH stimulates production of.
Second, the situation of rehabbing a specific muscle tear, as opposed to body building or endurance-enhancing has a familiar ring too. It wasn't until Ben Johnson shot steroids directly into a torn muscle, to promote quicker healing, that he finally failed a test for steroids.
And finally, as with Balco, we see a self-promoting internet marketer who's just made a killing whether or not Ray has actually tasted of the deer. People forget that Victor Conte had been a rock musician—bass player in a band called (and I am not making this up) Pure Food And Drug Act. Rick Lantini, the guy on the Deer Antler web site, claims to have played semi-pro football in Chicago and been a scab Green Bay Packer—and he was also a bodyguard to Robert DeNiro, or at least DeNiro playing Al Capone in the Untouchables: there's a great still from the movie which shows Lantini with a Moustache Pete moustache.
It's hard not to suppose the whole point of this 'revelation' has been promotion: since the NFL has no test for IGF1, Ray Lewis is not going to be found in violation of the rules unless he confesses, and with just a few days left in his playing career, he's not going to miss the Super Bowl anyway. As to his legacy, well, the idea of doing what it takes to speed up the rehab of an injury isn't going to put off many Hall of Fame voters, and it's not like Lewis' reputation hasn't rebounded from 'adversity' before. Whether the Lord looks kindly on antler velvet is something Ray probably knows better than I do. But here's another good question, which I'll want to put to Martin Johnson when he makes an appearance in our BBC booth: with all those New Zealand deer antlers leaving their velvet around, could they have really escaped the attention of the All-Blacks?
I SUPPOSE I OUGHT TO MENTION THE PRO BOWL
OK, but what's to say about any game where the highlight it Ed Hochuli making a joke about calling the first penalty. The other best moment was seeing Jason Pierre-Paul dropping into coverage on JJ Watt, running a fade in the end zone. It was like watching two seals fight for a beach ball. Russell Wilson thought he should have been MVP, and he looked like a happy high-schooler running rings around everyone in a sandlot game, but how can you be MVP of a game when you come into it in the third quarter with a three TD lead? In fact, how can anyone (apart from Ed Hochuli?) be the MVP at all. And remember, Jerome Boger wouldn't made a joke like that in a million years. Which is why he's doing the Super Bowl, and Mr Guns was in Hawaii.
LAST WEEK: 1-1 PLAYOFFS: 7-3