Now that those dangerous Falcons have been vanquished, I feel a bit better talking about The Big Game between the Harbaugh brothers. The Harbowl. The Sup-Harbowl. The Bro Browl. Super Bowl XLVII.
Prediction: 49ers 31, Ravens 24. Super Bowl MVP: Aldon Smith
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick is understandably the favorite to win the MVP after his dynamic performance in the playoffs so far, but I'm going with a darkhorse candidate in Smith because I believe he will be the most important impact player in the game. After recording 14 sacks last year as a rookie who only played on passing downs, he emerged with 19.5 sacks as a full time starter who has greatly improved at setting the edge against the run. He was voted team MVP in part because those 19.5 sacks were more than the rest of the team combined, and that pressure will be sorely needed against Joe Flacco to prevent him from having time to throw deep against their hybrid defense, as Chris Brown describes on Grantland.
Naysayers will point out that after threatening Michael Strahan's single season record, Smith has not had a sack in his last five games. This can be blamed partly on an injured shoulder that has had him listed as "Probable" on the injury report for much of the year, partly on the wear and tear of becoming an every down player after a limited workload last year, and, most notably, on the absence of his Missouri brethren, Justin Smith. The interior lineman tore his triceps in Week 15 against the Patriots, and without the double teams that he normally draws, Aldon has been unable to bring down quarterbacks. However, Justin has returned for the playoffs, and the extra week between games should allow the pass rush tandem to be near full strength.
The bigger concern is the stellar play of Baltimore's offensive line since left tackle Bryant McKinnie's return to the starting lineup. After not starting earlier in the year due to conditioning concerns in their no huddle offense, the former starter's return has stabilized the entire line by moving Michael Oher back to his previous position of right tackle while rookie Keelechi Osemele shifted to left guard. As a result, Flacco has been able to do what he does best: drop bombs from a clean pocket. Wide receiver Torrey Smith is faster than anyone on the Niner defense, so getting to Flacco before the speedster can get down field is the biggest priority for San Francisco. Runningback Ray Rice may be the Ravens' best player, but SF's front seven always holds up strongly against the run thanks to All-Pro inside linebackers Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman. Willis' coverage of tight end Dennis Pitta will be a key matchup to watch. The entire secondary can match up physically with Anquan Boldin, Baltimore's strongest receiving threat, but again, pressure on Flacco in the pocket from the Smith brothers and outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who may have been the defensive MVP of the NFC Championship game, will be key.
|Let's hope Aldon Smith will be doing this celebration often.|
However, shoddy special teams did provide this moment in Bill Walsh's last game, so that would be cool to repeat. Or should I say, Joe Cool.
When the Niners have the ball, the running game will likely be established early and often through a variety of ways. Chris Brown goes into some detail about the creativity of concepts from offensive coordinator Greg Roman, and the extra week to prepare should bring out some new wrinkles in the game plan. Kaepernick is such a running threat himself that it opens up space for workhorse runningback Frank Gore and rookie LaMichael James, often out of the pistol formation that Kap mastered during his years at Nevada. The Ravens have been better against the run since getting linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs back on the field together healthy, but they are still susceptible to being gashed on the ground. The Niners might have the best offensive line in the league, but breakout star right guard Alex Boone will have his hands full with defensive lineman Haloti Ngata. As Brown describes, SF's running scheme should help to give a numbers advantage that could nullify any individual matchups, so what the Ravens do to counter these formations will be something to look for throughout the game.
Strong safety Bernard Pollard is a big hitter who will likely play in the box often in order to help defend the run, which is where he is comfortable. If he is the primary coverage man on star tight end Vernon Davis, then that will be a big advantage for the Niners to exploit often. In particular, play action passes should create big plays for Kaptain Awesome, as I like to call him. Pass rushers like Suggs and Paul Kruger will already be on their heels to look out for the read option run that play fakes off of that action should give Kap enough time to fire rockets down the field to Davis and wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss. Crabtree has developed a strong chemistry with Kap that I believe is based on the sheer velocity of the passes. Kaptain Awesome's laser beams have proven to be a bit difficult to hold on to for some of the Niners receivers like Moss and Delanie Walker, but Crabtree's strong hands allow for seamless transitions from the catch to the run after the catch, or RAC yards. These RAC yards have always been Crabtree's strength going back to his Texas Tech days, and while being fully recovered from numerous foot injuries have helped, I believe that the speed with which the ball is now getting to him is why he has been able to make his moves and make people miss in the open field again.
|The last ride for these Ravens.|
If Kap does have the time to throw downfield like I anticipate, he'll have to be wary of future Hall of Famer Ed Reed at free safety. The Ravens may dial up the pressure to get a better pass rush, and if they do they'll be trusting Reed on the back end. His leadership is not to be understimated, as Kevin Van Valkenburg writes, so it will be interesting where he ends up in free agency. I have tweeted on multiple occasions that I would love for him to sign with Jim Harbaugh after playing for John, especially if they lose Pro Bowl free safety Dashon Goldson after using the franchise tag on him this year (I've also floated the idea of trading Alex Smith and a draft pick to the Chiefs for Eric Berry, but that's just a pipe dream). Reed is more likely to sign with a coach he has some history with like Bill Belichick or Chuck Pagano, but he is at least close with his former Miami teammate Frank Gore, whom he considers the best running back he's ever played against. Regardless, this is likely his last game as a Raven like Lewis, and I would not be surprised to see him make a big impact in his quest for his first Super Bowl ring, much like the player who will be challenging him down the field, Moss, the "greatest receiver of all time" at impacting how the game has changed.
|#Kaepernicking the critics. Awesome.|
If Reed, or any Ravens defender, does make a game-changing play early, don't count out Kaptain Awesome. Yes, he might force throws when crowded in the pocket, like most quarterbacks, but he has shown amazing poise for a second year player making just his ninth career start, the third fewest for a Super Bowl quarterback. Whether it be after a turnover, a momentum shift after the opposing offense scored, or a combination of the two, he has not been phased by big moments or the national stage. The Sunday Night Football loss in Seattle is the only time that he did not bounce back from early adversity, and I fully expect more of the mentally tough and prepared Kaepernick from the Bears game...and Rams game...and Patriots game...and Packers game...and Falcons game. I felt bad about the way the Alex Smith situation played out, but Kap is just so physically gifted to go along with being such a hard worker and strong leader that the choice was undeniable. You can see now why Jim Harbaugh traded up in the second round to nab the player he believed to be the best football player in the 2011 draft after a private workout based on a tip from Andrew Luck.
I'm not saying Kaepernick is going to have a record breaking day against a good Ravens defense, but there is definitely no way I am betting against him. I think the glory will be spread amongst a few offensive players, so here's the real question: do I hedge my pre-season wager on a Niners Super Bowl with the Ravens moneyline or take the points?