By the Numbers - Championship weekend

Sorry for sounding like a broken record but I’m going to start this week’s column – for the second week in a row – by talking about San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

But given that he has just led one of the most storied franchises in NFL history to their first Super Bowl appearance in 18 years, I’m sure you will forgive me just this once!

During the course of what ended up being just shy of eight hours sat in our chairs at Sky Sports on Sunday night, myself and Daryl ‘Moose’ Johnston had a discussion about the running quarterbacks who have thrilled fans of the NFL this season.

Whatever happens in New Orleans on February 3, one of the big storylines of this 2012 season has been the emergence of exciting and athletic dual-threat quarterbacks such as Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Kaepernick.

But when discussing this new breed of NFL quarterbacks, Moose and I were in agreement that one of them has to win a Super Bowl to speed up the shifting trend to more mobile passers across the league.

If you look back at the recent Super Bowls, they have all been won by a team possessing a quarterback capable of delivering accurate throws downfield from the pocket… Eli Manning (2011 and 2007), Aaron Rodgers (2010), Drew Brees (2009), Ben Roethlisberger (2008 and 2005), Peyton Manning (2006) and Tom Brady (2003 and 2004).

Sure, Rodgers and Roethlisberger have long been able to keep plays alive with their feet, but they won Super Bowl rings off the back of some impressive passing.

The Atlanta Falcons saw how Kaepernick destroyed the Green Bay Packers with outside runs in the Divisional Playoffs and decided to take that away in the NFC Championship Game.

If the 49ers were going to beat Atlanta from an offensive point of view, they were going to have to do it through Frank Gore runs up the middle and Kaepernick passes out of the pocket. The Niners succeeded on both counts and are now heading to New Orleans for the Super Bowl.

Kaepernick proved time and again on Sunday night that – if restricted to the pocket by an opposing defense – he can make all the throws necessary to succeed in the NFL.

The second-year passer impressed me with his arm strength, the tightness of his spiral and the velocity with which the ball leaves his hand. But he can also deliver touch passes into the arms of his receivers and he delivers the ball with stunning accuracy. There was one throw in the second half where receiver Michael Crabtree had zero separation from the defensive back yet Kaepernick was able to get the ball into the tightest of windows for the completion.

So Kaepernick, in essence, offers the best of both worlds for the San Francisco 49ers. If flushed from the pocket he can destroy defenses with his downfield running, putting his size and sprinter’s speed to good use.

And if contained in any way, he can do a darn good impression of your classic drop-back pocket passer. Add in some veteran maturity that makes a mockery of the fact he has started just nine games in the NFL and you can see why the 49ers were tripping over themselves to get Kaepernick into the line-up.

The decision to go away from in-form quarterback Alex Smith from Week 11 was controversial and slightly distracting at the time but it has proven to be a game-changer for the 49ers. They are now more dynamic than they ever could have wished to be with Smith at the helm.

The move also shows that Jim Harbaugh was right all along and guys like me who worried what the change would do for team morale were wrong. That’s why he’s getting ready to coach in a Super Bowl and I’m not! That and many other reasons, of course!

Now onto this week’s numbers…

114.7… That is the quarterback rating compiled by Super Bowl-bound Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco during three playoff victories this season. If quarterbacks are to be judged on how they perform in big games – and they don’t come much bigger than playoff contests – we have to tip our hat to Baltimore’s strong-armed signal-caller. In consecutive weeks, Flacco has beaten Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady – that is not a bad trio to put to the sword as you march on to your first Super Bowl appearance. Flacco has excelled at throwing the deep ball and is not afraid to take chances, which is probably why his completion percentage is a relatively low 54.8. But he has thrown for 853 yards, 8 touchdowns and – most importantly – no interceptions. Flacco is a free agent after this season and he has timed his big play performances to perfection. I never expected the Ravens to cut Flacco loose this off-season, but I did wonder how much they would be willing to pay him. I would imagine Flacco has a pretty nice pay day coming his way in the next few months.

5-106-1… After just seven catches in seven games, Vernon Davis emerged as a big-time target for the 49ers once again on Sunday night during their 28-24 victory over Atlanta. Despite his disappearance in recent weeks, Davis remains a mismatch nightmare who can run like the wind and stretch the middle of the field. He caught 5 passes for 106 yards and 1 touchdown and must remain a part of the 49ers’ gameplan in the Super Bowl. If teams are going to take away Michael Crabtree to highlight the fact that San Francisco don’t really have a number two wide receiver of note right now, Davis has to be that number two receiver. Randy Moss still commands respect due to his deep speed, but it is Davis who has the skills to consistently undo an opposing defense.

Monday Musings…

  • I’m not sure on the Chicago Bears’ decision to hire Marc Trestman as their new head coach. Is that really a step up from Lovie Smith? Trestman has not been in the NFL for nine years and, with all due respect to friend and Sky Sports colleague Jeff Reinebold, the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL are not renowned for sending head coaches to the NFL. Trestman has been brought on board to be Jay Cutler’s ‘quarterback whisperer.’ But would you really want to put your faith in a man who – on his own website – boasts about the fact he has helped to tutor quarterbacks such as Jason Campbell, Jimmy Clausen and Tim Tebow!
  • We are in for a Super Bowl packed full of storylines but it should also be a good, physical game. It is great to see two different teams in the title game as the 49ers are making their first appearance in 18 years and the Ravens the first in 12 seasons. We can talk until we’re blue in the face about the HarBowl but what stands out to me with these two teams is that defense does still matter in today’s offense-filled NFL. This has all the makings of a slug-fest, knock-‘em-down street fight.

Final Thought

Regardless of how the result turns out in New Orleans on the first weekend in February, it is fitting that future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis ends his glittering career with the Baltimore Ravens by playing in a Super Bowl. Lewis has been a rock on the field during the playoffs and his inspirational leadership has the Ravens, particularly on defense, playing like they are 10-feet tall. I have to admit that Ray’s final NFL journey has made for compelling viewing this month. He wears me out watching him in pre-game warm-ups and during his post-match celebrations. You literally see the joy flood out of him after each playoff victory. Not many NFL players get to ride off into the sunset on their own terms as Super Bowl champions. John Elway did it with the Denver Broncos, Jerome Bettis did the same with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michael Strahan left as a champion with the New York Giants. Ray Lewis fans will hope he can do the same on February 3. I’m just glad he gets to go out on the biggest stage of them all – that is what this legendary performer and inspirational character deserves. And it, of course, means we’re in for quite a show in New Orleans. How special is it going to be to see Lewis dance his way onto the field one more time at the Super Bowl? Fingers crossed the NFL allows his famous pre-match routine and doesn’t cite some obscure rule to deny us what is going to be one of the most memorable and iconic moments in league history.

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