After a decade of mostly familiar names, Super Bowl XLVII is set to provide some welcome new blood under center. Sunday will mark the first title game in five years to feature two quarterbacks who’ve never been here before, but that’s about where their similarities in experience end. For Colin Kaepernick, this start in New Orleans comes barely three months after the first of his NFL career. For Joe Flacco, it’s the next step in his playoff success. But even with all the pressure young Kaepernick is set to face, in my mind, and in terms of scheme, support, and circumstance, there will be more of it placed on Flacco.
Like the 49ers, previous versions of these Ravens relied on a bruising running game and great defense to buttress a young quarterback as he improved from week-to-week. This year, those areas of strength have lagged. After a long stretch of dominance, Baltimore's famed and historic defense fell to the middle of the pack in nearly every category, and although the Ray Rice–led running game is still formidable, its efficiency and production took a step back.
This means that for the first time, the Ravens have become Joe Flacco’s team, and more than ever, Baltimore has relied on its passing attack. Ray Rice has been a steady bailout option for most of Flacco’s career, but it’s Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, and Dennis Pitta who will be the keys come Sunday night.
It was Sunday, January 17, 1999. I was in Augusta, Georgia, for the first big junior tennis tournament of the season, the Mayor's Cup. Two days earlier, I walked onto the court, unseeded, for my first-round match with the 9-seed. The end result: a three-set loss. Ever the type to get down on myself, I was bummed, a feeling that continued through my first-round consolation match the following day. I lost that too. I had traveled all the way to Augusta, during my long MLK weekend, to go 0-2. I was devastated.
Then, to make matters worse, I couldn't leave. I had made the trek with a couple other players, and they were still in the tournament. So on Sunday, the penultimate day of the tournament, I showed up to the tennis center in street clothes, my racket back at the hotel. Coming empty-handed meant both spectators and participants alike were reminded that you're a loser. I was 11, and at that point in my life it got no worse than this.
While it might seem like football just started yesterday, incredibly, we're coming up on the halfway point of this NFL season this weekend. Week 9 is a good time to take a step back from the game-to-game grind and examine each team with a longer view — so that's exactly what I'm going to do. Over the rest of the week at Grantland, I'll be taking a look back at how some notable teams and players have performed over the first half while looking forward to how things might change during the final half of the season.
A natural place to start is with the league's only undefeated team. The Atlanta Falcons have been popularly elected as the league's best team, and while I don't necessarily agree, it's not difficult to make a case that the Falcons belong in that discussion. What I'm interested in finding out, though, is why this year's Falcons are a step above the other Matt Ryan–era teams through the first seven games. If anything, the previous Ryan-led Falcons squads have been teams that got hot as the season went along: During their three double-digit win seasons, the Falcons were a combined 13-8 (61.9 percent) across their first seven games and 21-6 (77.8 percent) afterward. You can make anecdotal cases for what changed — the turnover at offensive coordinator, Ryan stepping up his game, Julio Jones taking a step forward in his sophomore campaign — but I'm looking for tangible differences in their play. What is it about the 7-0 Falcons that is different from the guys who showed up over the previous four years? And will it stick into the second half? And beyond?
The Jags train is leaving the station. Or not. Whatever.
In the past 12 hours, yet-to-report Maurice Jones-Drew has gone from very upset about some of his new owner’s public comments to maybe not so upset anymore. Early Tuesday, Jags owner Shad Khan continued his cavalier approach to MJD’s holdout, telling the Florida Times-Union, "Train is leaving the station. Run, get on it." This prompted Jones-Drew and his camp to tell reporters that in that case, the 2011 rushing champion would like to be traded. By this morning, most likely realizing that he and his client have almost no leverage, Jones-Drew’s agent had softened that stance.
1. Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Nobody is going to call the Colts stiff competition (or competition, really), but Julio Jones played Sunday like a robot sent from the future to destroy us all. His falling catch in triple coverage is not something humans should be able to do.
2. Andre3000, rapper
Just so we're all clear if you make the album Stankonia and then show up on the new Drake album with the line, "Now that both of us are colorblind, ’cause the other side looks greener/Which leaves your turf in a Boise State, can’t see a play or the team," chances are you will find yourself very, very high in a power rankings list called Rankonia. Just FYI. Take care.
3. Drunk Falcons Fans
To finish off the ATL's grip on the top three, Rembert Browne, an Atlanta native and the Doris Kearns Goodwin of celebrity softball, brings this to our attention. Sayeth Rem: "Blue Laws Repealed! Sunday Alcohol Sales in Atlanta! Church Parking Lot Tailgates Galore! MATTY NATTY ICES FOR ALLLLLLLL."
4. Lenny Dykstra, investment consultant As suggested by our human frailty editor, David Jacoby. Dykstra is the "face" of one of the craziest sports-related stories you're going to come across all year. Dykstra was supposed to fight Jose Canseco in Hollywood this past weekend in an event that was organized by a Broomall, PA. man who is "no longer allowed to legally promote fights in Pennsylvania after pleading to charges of promoting without a license and fight-fixing" AND a Nigerian-born Internet mogul. This fight didn't happen and now Dykstra is saying he never even agreed to get into the squared circle with the one-time Bash Brother.
I'm personally shocked at all this. A fight promoter accused of fight-fixing? A Nigerian internet mogul? Stock market guru Lenny Dykstra? Jose Canseco? The table was set! All they had to do was eat the meal. Can't believe this didn't go off without a hitch.
5. Marcelo Bielsa, manager, Athletic Bilbao
For those who don't actively follow South American or Spanish football, a) what's wrong with you? and b) meet this genius. Bielsa, a one-time Argentina national coach who led Chile on a breathtaking World Cup run last summer, is now guiding the Basque team Athletic Bilbao.
After a rocky La Liga start, the eccentric tactical genius, who employs little-used formations like 3-3-1-3 and drills his players to play aesthetically beautiful and athletically demanding football, has righted Bilbao's ship and over the weekend he offered up a managerial masterclass against Barcelona, drawing with the La Liga and Champions League winners in what might have been the best football match of the European season, to date. Pep Guardiola, the Barcelona boss called the match, "un canto al futbol," an ode to the game, and said of Bielsa, "I would have liked to have played under him: he is different to everyone else."
7. LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles might be slumping, but at least they have someone who can do this.
8. Pius Heinz, 2011 WSOP champion You gotta love a sport where the trophy presentation is actually a dude putting on a bracelet in what looks like a Birdman video. Nice work if you can bluff it.
9. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State
Got to love the visor. Got to love him because he's a man and he's 40. Got to love him because he teaches you how to Gundy.
But you mostly have to love him because after beating Kansas State this past weekend, in the shadow of the Game of the Century, Gundy had the stones to say, "I'm not so sure they shouldn't have been watching our game."
10. Yao Ming, college student
The average student height at Shanghai's Jiao Tong University just got a little taller. Sometimes it's important to remember that this guy was the absolute best. Yo! Yao!