The last time a Super Bowl vaguely resembled the pregame plan was in February of 2007, when the Colts faded a kickoff return on the opening play of the game from the best return man in the history of football and rode their huge quarterback advantage to a win. Otherwise, for about a 10-year stretch now, Super Bowl previews have borne no resemblance to the game that's actually played out on the field. Nobody saw the Patriots' game plan coming to knock down Marshall Faulk in 2002. Presumably, no scribes suggested that Raiders head coach Bill Callahan was going to deliberately try to throw the Super Bowl the following year. Even when the favorite has covered the spread, the game has had some major quirk corrupt things. Ben Roethlisberger's two-pick, 29.3–passer rating game against the Seahawks. The injuries to Charles Woodson and Sam Shields tearing the Green Bay pass defense apart against those same Steelers years later (with Green Bay still holding up to win).
Of course, that's not stopping anybody from writing or reading Super Bowl previews. I don't know that there's something innately different about the Super Bowl, that pregame trends and levels of performance get muddied amid the pressure of the biggest game in most players' lives and produce a contest that bears little resemblance to expectations, but I can see the argument. Maybe if you took the Monday Night Football game from Week 9 each year and compared it to how each of those teams did over the remainder of the year, it would stand out as odd in the same way that these last dozen Super Bowls or so have stood out. Somebody like me would point out that the 10 Super Bowls at the end of the last century roughly amounted to chalk; outside of the one major upset (Broncos-Packers) and one minor one (Giants-Bills), the favorites cleaned up and the Super Bowl had a very boring decade.
The only thing I'm really confident about heading into Sunday is that Harbaugh Bowl II won't look much like Harbaugh Bowl I. That game was 14 months ago, but both the 49ers and Ravens have undergone fundamental shifts in terms of their personnel and style of play in the meantime. Baltimore evolved after injuries threatened their viability; San Francisco evolved by using an injury as an excuse to try to become a better long-term team. They each have an impressive blowout and an even more impressive comeback on their résumé this postseason, but to win a Super Bowl, they'll have to do the one thing nobody's done during these playoffs: beat a Harbaugh.
As important as it is to win after the ball's snapped, teams can do a lot of good for themselves by dictating matchups and personnel sets that are in their favor before plays even begin. During this postseason, the Ravens have had to contend with the Broncos and Patriots — teams who try to create mismatches against tired defenses by running different sorts of no-huddle attacks. Baltimore has been able to withstand those attacks by staying in a Nickel defense that has done a good job of matching up against the sorts of personnel sets the Broncos and Patriots tend to run. In the Super Bowl, don't be surprised if the 49ers try to attack the Ravens with a seemingly counterintuitive strategy: forcing them back into their traditional 3-4 alignment.
My estimate is that the Ravens have had five defensive backs out in the familiar Nickel package on about 76 percent of their defensive snaps this postseason. At this point, the Nickel might actually be their best personnel package by virtue of playing to many of its players' strengths. It allows Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger to focus on rushing the passer and moves the somewhat undersized Corey Graham into the slot, where he's done great work this postseason. When Baltimore moves into the 3-4, they swap out a cornerback — usually Chykie Brown — for a nose tackle, either Terrence Cody or Ma'ake Kemoeatu, while moving Graham to the outside. To tell the truth, Brown has been better at corner this year than Cody or Kemoeatu have been up front. Haloti Ngata also hasn't been at 100 percent for months now, and the 3-4 virtually requires him to be present for the Ravens.
While the Broncos and Patriots often like to stretch defenses by adding receivers, the 49ers are likely to show off just about every sort of offensive personnel set you can imagine over the course of a game. Like the Broncos and Patriots, they have a pair of talented athletes at tight end who are capable of lining up at any spot in the formation and exploiting a mismatch. And after Vernon Davis finally got involved in the offense for the first time in weeks during the NFC Championship Game, the Ravens might actually have to respect the presence of the player who dominated during the 2011 postseason.
Where the 49ers will really test the Ravens is when they go into run-heavy sets that bring on six or seven offensive linemen. They've gone with extra offensive linemen four to six times per game during the postseason, and it's not a gimmick for short yardage; the 49ers have quick offensive linemen who can get to the second level and create big plays out of those sets. And lest you think the Ravens can just bring on extra linemen themselves and sell out against the run when they see backup linemen Leonard Davis and Daniel Kilgore come onto the field alongside defensive tackle Will Tukuafu, think again; the 49ers are perfectly capable of calling for Kaepernick to throw a bomb up the seam to Vernon Davis or Delanie Walker out of that very alignment.
As Chris Brown noted in his Thursday breakdown of how the Ravens will try to stop the 49ers, the 49ers get you with their diversity. They're innovative, in part, by bringing back the past. The best way to stop any sort of running play, whether that play made its debut in 1962 or 2012, is by winning at the line of scrimmage. If the likes of Cody and Ngata get swallowed up at the point of attack, the 49ers will get to dictate their terms all evening.
At the end of Brown's piece, he points out that the Ravens will probably have to blitz Kaepernick to try to force him into making the mistakes that come with inexperience; specifically, that the Ravens will try to get defenders into throwing lanes off of zone blitzes. It's a tactic that former Ravens defensive coordinator and current Falcons DC Mike Nolan tried against Kaepernick last week, and it nearly produced an interception by defensive tackle Corey Peters that might have sealed the game in the first quarter.
Assuming that Baltimore does spend a lot of time in their base 3-4 defense, the key player in stopping Kaepernick as a runner while possibly forcing an interception by stepping into a throwing lane will likely be Paul Kruger. At this point, Kruger is the most explosive, athletic player Baltimore has in its front seven, and he's arguably Baltimore's best bet in terms of having somebody who can actually physically motor his way into the path of a Kaepernick hot route before the ball gets there.
Before his breakout stretch during the second half of the 2012 season, Kruger's most famous play as a Ravens defender actually came on exactly the sort of play I'm describing. It was even against Dennis Dixon — a relatively inexperienced quarterback who had experience employing read option techniques (although it's unfair to compare Kaepernick to Dixon). The interception (on video here) came in overtime of a Steelers-Ravens game in 2009, and it was exactly the sort of process the Ravens would hope to get an interception out of on Sunday.
The Ravens line up on the play with four down linemen and six men in the box, so it's not their base defense, but they do execute a zone blitz on the play. The two interior defensive linemen and a linebacker rush the passer up the middle, while both ends drop back into coverage as a cornerback blitzes. Kruger sells his rush well, actually taking a full step in toward the right tackle before bailing and getting into a likely passing lane for Dixon.
Pittsburgh is likely calling for a quick throw to the sticks from Dixon on third-and-5 anyway, but the zone blitz and pressure up the middle only further encourages Dixon to get the ball out and try to hit what's most likely his hot read, the slant to Santonio Holmes. The throw looks open, since the cornerback on Holmes blitzes at the snap and Ed Reed looks slow to get over, but Dixon never even sees Kruger drop back into the path of the slant.
If you're a 49ers fan, you're noting that Kaepernick is a much better player than Dennis Dixon, and you're right. He probably doesn't panic under that sort of impending pressure and makes a more intelligent throw, or he scrambles out of the pressure and avoids the blitz altogether. Every quarterback makes mistakes, and the Ravens have to find ways to exploit the few weaknesses that Kaepernick has with the best possible defensive techniques they can come up with. For a player as accurate and efficient as Kaepernick, that might involve preying on the one thing he lacks: experience.
If any single player has taken over these playoffs, of course, it's Joe Flacco. While Colin Kaepernick has been thrilling to watch, there's a reason Flacco was listed at the top of last week's playoff stock watch; not only is Flacco winning and producing at the highest level, he's doing it in the run-in period for a new contract. Dot-com billionaires gaze in awe at Joe Flacco's timing.
It's always a dangerous game to try to draw conclusions from three-game samples, but the Flacco ascension really intrigues me. Is there something Flacco is doing that he wasn't pulling off a year or two ago? For a player who has always had his measures of value adulterated by his win totals, I wonder whether we're perceiving some sort of change in Flacco's performance solely because the Ravens are in the Super Bowl.
Here are Flacco's playoff numbers from the first five years of his career, split into convenient chunks of possible truths:
That's really interesting. Obviously, the 2008-09 Flacco was something truly dreadful, but that hardly seems relevant now. That guy with those numbers still managed to go 3-2, which should tell you a lot about my prior skepticism. The 2010-11 Flacco, though, played almost as well in a four-game stretch as the 2012 Flacco has during his three-game run to the Super Bowl! It was a totally different sort of performance, as the 2010-11 Flacco was more conservative and checked down more frequently than the 2012 version.1
This year's Flacco looks like a quarterback out of the mid-'70s. He's barely completing more than half of his passes, but when he gets the ball out, it goes for big yardage. During the 2012 playoffs, Flacco has produced 15 completions of 20 yards or more, or one every 6.2 attempts. From 2008 to 2011, Flacco had a total of just 22 completions that produced gains of 20 yards or more, which is one every 11.2 attempts.
The most meaningful difference between the old Flacco and the guy who's shown up this January, though, comes in those two columns on the right. After averaging more than one turnover per game during his playoff career, Flacco has just one fumble against his record in three games. And you might be expecting me to argue that Flacco will regress and start turning the ball over as soon as Sunday, which is possible, but there might very well be something to the idea that a downfield-throwing Flacco is a turnover-averse Flacco: He has historically had a lower-than-expected interception rate on deep throws.
You don't need me to tell you what avoiding turnovers does for your offense. The hidden effect it's had has been to produce longer fields for Baltimore's defense to defend. Baltimore has faced 38 drives during this postseason, and exactly one of them has begun on their side of the field: New England's ill-fated drive at the end of the first half that ended up being bumbled into a field goal. And even that started on the Baltimore 43-yard line. Just eight of those 38 drives have begun past the opposing team's 30-yard line, and on those eight drives, the aforementioned field goal represents the only points Baltimore's allowed. So Flacco's put his defense in good positions, and when the defense has been in slightly choppier waters, they've come up with stops when they've needed them.2
Regardless of what the numbers say, the broader picture and the timeliness of Flacco's biggest drives mean that he's had a bigger impact on Baltimore winning these three playoff games than the numbers might indicate. All three of Baltimore's games have been close at halftime, and in the second half (and overtime) of these three playoff games, Flacco has been brilliant, going 30-of-52 for 489 yards with six touchdowns and no picks, producing a passer rating of 127.8. Sure, it very well might just be a three-game sample that means nothing in terms of predicative value, but you can't take away from what Flacco's done. The Ravens needed great quarterback play to get here, and Flacco's delivered.
In my opinion, no head coach in the NFL does a better job of shifting around his game plan to attack the specific weaknesses of his opponent than Jim Harbaugh. It would stand, then, that the more time Jim Harbaugh gets to install his game plan, the better his team would play. A look at the numbers confirms that to an almost staggering degree.
When the 49ers have had eight or more days between games3 under Harbaugh, they've gone 11-1-1. Their only loss was to the Giants in the NFC Championship Game, and the tie came against the Rams in a game where they lost their starting quarterback to a concussion in the middle of the contest. In those 13 games, the average final score has been 28-17.
Jim Harbaugh hasn't been quite as effective on shorter rest. When his team has had exactly seven days of preparation, they've gone 13-6, albeit with a final score of 25-17. And while his team is 3-1 in its four games on short rest, that includes two narrow victories over the Seahawks and San Francisco's loss in Harbaugh Bowl I on Thanksgiving Night last year. Their average score in those contests has been a mere 17-15.
So, it's really a huge advantage that Jim Harbaugh gets two full weeks to prepare for the Ravens, right? Well, John Harbaugh's also getting two weeks to prepare for his brother, and his numbers aren't much worse with eight or more days of rest to work with. In those games, Harbaugh's Ravens are 16-4, winning by an average final score of 23-14. It seems reasonable to infer that the extra rest might mean a lot to an old defense that can't have much fun getting out of bed in the morning these days. Since the beginning of the 2010 season, the Baltimore defense has gotten extra rest 12 times and allowed 17 points or more exactly once, when the Texans scored 28 points in a contest in which they were down 28-7 at the beginning of the third quarter and had to desperately throw to catch up. The last time Baltimore impressed with a long week of work was, coincidentally, when they beat the Patriots two weeks ago. Since Harbaugh took over, the Ravens are just 8-7 in short weeks.
In the end, it's likely that each team received a boost from the extended rest. The 49ers got more time to prepare their schemes, and an undoubtedly tired Ravens defense got some welcome days without contact.
1. I don't think David Akers will be as big of a problem as people suggest. Let's say that 49ers fans could choose right now to skip the entire game and decide the Super Bowl solely upon whether Akers could hit a 42-yard field goal. Would you take that bet? Probably not, but the implied odds from Vegas suggest that it would be smart. The 49ers moneyline, after adjusting for the Ravens moneyline and the vig, suggests that their "true" probability of winning from the market is 61.8 percent. Would you trust Akers to hit more than 61.8 percent of the time from the 42-yard line with the Super Bowl on the line? If he really couldn't hit more than 62 percent of the time from there in a dome, that would make him well worse than the worst NFL kicker in most given seasons. He can't be that bad.
2. I have no idea what to make of the special teams battle in this game. As the Football Outsiders preview notes, Baltimore's special teams were dominant during the regular season, but they allowed the two return touchdowns to the Broncos in the divisional round, and special teams in general remain the most inconsistent aspect of team play in football. Remember: San Francisco had the league's best special teams heading into the NFC Championship Game last year, and they probably would have won with even a below-average day from Kyle Williams.
3. Don't think that the 49ers are weak against the deep pass because the Falcons burned them two weeks ago. The Outsiders preview also notes that the 49ers had the league's best DVOA against passes that were thrown 15 yards or more through the air. Baltimore might succeed on a few deep throws to Torrey Smith & Co., but that will be because they're a very good downfield throwing team, not because the 49ers can't handle deep throws.
4. Bernard Pollard will almost surely try to take out Jim Harbaugh. Wouldn't that be the only way for him to top his previous reign of terror?
5. Watch for the Niners to try to take advantage of Cary Williams. Williams is Baltimore's weakest defensive back, even when they play in the 3-4 base and move Corey Graham from the slot to one side of the field. The Ravens also almost always leave their cornerbacks on one side of the field, so the 49ers can gameplan in advance to account for Williams being a sitting target on the left side of the field. Expect Michael Crabtree to spend the bulk of his day matched up against Williams.
6. The 49ers need to do something to wake up Aldon Smith. Although he showed a few signs of life last week by knocking down Matt Ryan once and recovering the fumble on Ryan's aborted snap, Aldon Smith remains a shadow of his former self since Justin Smith tore his triceps against the Patriots in Week 15. Justin Smith is back in the lineup, but he hasn't been the superstar end of old while playing on one and a half arms. If they can't rely on the Smiths (who saw this coming with "Death at One's Elbow") to twist and stunt their way into easy sacks for Aldon, the 49ers need to find other ways to get Aldon into impact pass-rushing situations. Aldon can't entirely be a creation of Justin Smith, right?
7. The Ravens need to do something to wake up Ray Rice. Since his two-fumble day against the Colts in the wild-card round, Rice has mostly been anonymous during Baltimore's run to the Super Bowl. Rice leads all backs in rushing with 247 yards, but he also leads all backs in carriers, and at 3.9 yards per pop, he's been overshadowed by the more explosive Bernard Pierce, who's averaging 6.3 yards per carry. Rice's versatility would normally lead me to suggest that they try throwing him the ball more to get him going, but with the likes of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman around, that seems like the wrong plan.
8. Baltimore won Harbaugh Bowl I because the 49ers couldn't handle Terrell Suggs. Outside of perhaps the blowout victory over the Patriots in the 2009 playoffs, Suggs's destruction of 49ers right tackle Anthony Davis in the Thanksgiving-night game last year represented the best game of the pass rusher's decorated career. Suggs had three sacks, three quarterback knockdowns, two tackles for loss, and a forced fumble, and even those numbers understate his impact. The 49ers couldn't account for him and couldn't move the ball because of it. Obviously, that Suggs hasn't been seen since he tore his Achilles during the offseason and added a biceps tear after his return; he had his best game since the injuries hit against the Patriots, but it's difficult to imagine that Baltimore can reenact its sackfest from last year against Kaepernick on Sunday.
9. I can see any outcome beyond a Ravens blowout victory. This almost surely sets up a big reverse jinx, but I'm equally inclined to believe that a big 49ers win or a narrow win by either of these two teams is possible. A blowout 49ers loss would take some sort of unholy, Ankiel-esque collapse (or injury) from Kaepernick on the biggest stage, because even if the Ravens get out to an early lead, the 49ers should be able to throw the ball around on them and keep it relatively close.
10. I'm predicting a final score of 49ers 28, Ravens 17. Baltimore has exceeded my expectations during these playoffs, and I've picked against them twice in the last two rounds, only to see them win both times. Ravens fans see a little bit of the 2007 Giants in their team, and with the parallels between a retiring Ray Lewis and Michael Strahan along with an occasionally embattled quarterback taking a big leap forward, you can understand why.
But I'm picking the 49ers because I really believe they're going to dominate at the line of scrimmage and dictate the way this game is played. That should also remind you of the 2007 (and 2011) Giants, as both those teams beat up the Patriots at the line of scrimmage and messed up their timing on offense. San Francisco's offensive line has been its unexpectedly elite weapon all year. On Sunday, I'm expecting them to show up and win the game for the 49ers.
This article has been updated to correct the following errors: The Ravens allowed two return touchdowns to the Broncos, not rushing touchdowns to the Colts, in the divisional round; Ben Roethlisberger had two picks, not four picks, in Super Bowl XL.
This isn't an artifact of that one long touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones against the Broncos, either; remove that play and Flacco's still averaging a healthy 8.5 yards per attempt.
Will that continue? I'm not sure. It's sure hard to win a field-position battle with the Niners. San Francisco had the league's best average starting offensive and defensive field position in 2011, and while they didn't remain atop the leaderboard in 2012, they only fell to third in offensive starting field position and second on the defensive side.
Including games played during Week 1 of the regular season, games after bye weeks, and playoff games where relevant.