The two-week build-up to the last football game until September (yikes!) can seem interminable. Storyline after storyline is not only beaten into the ground, it is stomped on, trampled, and buried thirty feet deep. Hey guys – did you know the coaches of each team are brothers?? CRAZY! Super Bowl week has turned into a week-long parade of athletes and entertainers put on display to sell this item or that on every TV and radio show imaginable. At this point, it’s hard to remember that there is an ACTUAL GAME to be played on Sunday. I double-checked – they are still planning on playing, and more than 100 million people are planning on watching, many gathered together at Super Bowl parties. These gatherings mirror the Super Bowl week spectacle; a few people are there for the game, but the majority is there simply for the food and drink.
You find all kinds of people at Super Bowl parties: non-football fans (shhh – the commercials are on), casual football fans (watching the game, but just as excited for Beyonce), and the hardcore football fans (over-analyzing every play, keeping track of 47 prop bets). No matter what category you fall into, hopefully after reading this column you’ll have a little something extra to bring to your party.
Non-Football Fans: Here are the aforementioned major storylines that have suffered a brutal death. Ravens coach John Harbaugh and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh are brothers, the first brothers to coach against each other for a championship in ANY major sport. Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis is playing his last game. A first-ballot Hall of Famer and one of the greatest linebackers in history, Lewis has a checkered past but has become a religious, inspirational figure who is the unquestioned leader of the Ravens. And he dances. 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick took over the offense at midseason and has been an absolute revelation - morphing the once conservative 49ers offense into one of the league’s most dynamic. Know these three things and nobody will realize that this is the first football game you’ve watched all year (just don’t ask what inning it is).
Casual Football Fans: Typically when you think about the 49ers and Ravens, you first think defense. The Ravens have long been the standard bearer in the NFL for defense, with the 49ers taking over the last few years as the top dog. With the emergence of Kaepernick, and Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco taking his game to another level, my hunch is that this game will be higher scoring than conventional wisdom suggests. The key for the Ravens offense will be keeping Ray Rice involved, whether it is running or in the passing game. They have a tendency to forget about Rice, but they’ll need him to move the chains and keep possession as the Ravens defense is susceptible to getting worn out. For the 49ers offense, if Kaepernick can keep his nerves in check and make the right reads in both the passing and running games, they should be able to move the ball effectively all night.
Hardcore Football Fans: Defensively, the 49ers have not been the same since defensive end Justin Smith’s injury late in the season. Dynamic edge rusher Aldon Smith has been invisible since, and without that pass rush they’ve been giving up a lot of big plays down the field. Key to watch early is if Justin looks healthier with the two-week layoff and is able to control two blockers up front, Aldon might be able to get the edge and disrupt the Ravens passing game. For the Ravens defense, the key will be how they decide to defend the read-option running game. So far in the playoffs the Packers chose to focus on running back Frank Gore, and Kaepernick proceeded to gash them repeatedly. The Falcons did the reverse, and, as such, Gore had a big afternoon. My hunch is that they will dedicate an extra body up front and make Kaepernick try to beat them with his arm, banking on a few mistakes from the youngster in the direction of Ed Reed.
In the end, the Ravens appear to have a lot of the same characteristics of the last few Super Bowl champs: uneven regular season, got hot at the right time, quarterback making “the leap,” and a little bit of luck on their side. It all adds up to a Ravens victory, 34-28. Enjoy the game – if it ever gets here.