I did a Super Bowl preview last week, which can be read here, and now I’m going to do an actual Super Bowl pick. For those of you who don’t want to read the whole preview now, here’s a little bit of a summary. The 49ers have been arguably the best team in the NFL throughout the entire season and certainly since Kaepernick took over midseason. However, the Ravens have played on the 49ers’ level over the past month, en route to the Super Bowl.
The Ravens are peaking at the right time. The 49ers have never really had a peak. They’ve been consistently very solid. That’s what makes this game so tough to pick. A month ago, I would have picked the 49ers to win easily, maybe even by double digits, but a lot of changed since then. Jim Caldwell has this offense clicking. Joe Flacco is on fire, thanks to part to Jim Caldwell and an improved offensive line. And the defense has played incredibly well due to Ray Lewis’ on the field leadership. I’ve gone back and forth with this one, so I’m going to put the argument for both teams before I make a final pick.
The Ravens have a lot of history on their side. Underdogs have covered 8 of the last 11 Super Bowls, while the lower seed (if applicable) is 1-12 ATS in the Super Bowl since 1996. Teams that played in the Wild Card round are 7-0 ATS in the Super Bowl since 2002. There’s a simple explanation for that. In order to make it to the Super Bowl as a lower seeded underdog out of Wild Card weekend, you have to play really, really well. Teams like that tend to have a harder road to the Super Bowl than teams like the 49ers. They typically play more games, go on the road more often, and play higher seeds. As a result, they seem to be better prepared for the Super Bowl.
All of those are the case with the Ravens. They’ve played three games to the 49ers’ two. They’ve played two road games to the 49ers’ one. And they’ve been underdogs twice (touchdown plus underdogs in fact), while the 49ers have yet to be underdogs. In order to get to this point, they’ve had to play better than the 49ers have and that seems to be a good predictor of Super Bowl.
An example of how they’ve played better recently than the 49ers is defensively. The 49ers had the better regular season defense, ranking 2nd in the NFL in points allowed, allowing 71 fewer than the 12th ranked Ravens. However, dating back to their week 15 game against the Patriots, they’ve allowed 24.8 points per game defensively (excluding return touchdowns), coinciding with Justin Smith’s injury and Aldon Smith’s definitely related sack drought.
They aren’t getting much pressure on the quarterback and, while their secondary ranked 2nd in the NFL in YPA this season, good quarterbacks who get time can throw on them. This isn’t 10 years ago when you could play good pass defense without getting pressure. It’s tough for defensive backs to win one on one for an extended period of time with all the new rules that have come into play.
They’ve played a tough batch of quarterbacks in those 5 games, including Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, and Matt Ryan, but Joe Flacco is certainly in that group somewhere. The Ravens’ defense, meanwhile, has allowed 14.3 points per game in their last 4 (excluding return touchdowns and a week 17 game in which their starters didn’t play). They’ve seen their fair share of tough quarterbacks as well, Eli Manning, Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and last week they held Tom Brady to 13, a quarterback who led his team to 34 points (despite 4 turnovers) against the 49ers in an eventual losing effort in that aforementioned week 15 game. If you compare how these teams looked against the only common opponent they’ve had recently, Baltimore clearly looks like the better team.
There’s also the whole story line factor with them: how they have come this far despite tragedy (death of Art Modell, Torrey Smith’s brother), injury (Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs missed significant time, Lardarius Webb is out, while Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata have played through injuries), and struggles (they closed the season losing 4 of 5). There’s nothing scientific about this, but teams with the better story seem like they more often win this game.
San Francisco 49ers
On the other hand, while on paper it appears the Ravens have had to play better in the playoffs to get here, consider that the 49ers are coming from the vastly superior conference. Not a single AFC divisional winner beat an NFC playoff team this year (0-6). In fact, those 4 teams are a combined 8-8 against the NFC this year, as opposed to 39-9 against AFC teams. Overall, the AFC went 25-39 against the NFC this year. The NFC has been better for the last few years and has won 4 of the last 5 Super Bowls. Beating the Broncos and Patriots on the road is impressive, but beating Atlanta in Atlanta and beating the Packers in San Francisco isn’t an easy path either. It’s not like last year when the Patriots just had to play the Broncos and Ravens at home.
Plus, while the Ravens are an underdog, they are a publicly backed underdog. This means two things. One, you’re not getting any line value with them really. They opened at +5, but so much action drove it down to +3.5. Two, I love fading publicly backed underdogs. Fading the public in general is smart when you need a tiebreaker between two sides because the public always loses money in the long run, but I especially like fading public underdogs because it creates a slighted favorite effect. Whenever everyone predicts an upset, it usually doesn’t happen (see Colts over Ravens, Bengals over Texans, Packers over 49ers, etc).
There’s a reason they’ve been favored. The Ravens may be playing better football right now (though that’s debatable when you consider the conferences these two teams come from), but there’s something to be said for the 49ers’ season long play. If they win this Super Bowl, there’s no debating they were this season’s best team, while if the Ravens win, you could still make arguments for teams like the Broncos, Patriots, and 49ers as the NFL’s best team based on their entire body of work. I know this isn’t the BCS. Championships aren’t decided like that and if the Ravens win, there’s no denying they’ll have won the Super Bowl, but you could argue that any of those 3 aforementioned teams had better overall years, especially the 49ers, regardless of the outcome of this game. They just didn’t (or hypothetically won’t have) when it really mattered.
Coming into the post-season, I had the 49ers behind the Packers, Broncos, and Patriots because I felt that in a post-season filled with inexperienced quarterbacks, the three who had won Super Bowls would have an obvious advantage. I questioned Kaepernick’s ability to win on the big stage, coming in with 7 regular season starts and I also questioned how their defense would play with Justin Smith limited. I was right about the latter, but definitely wrong about the former, which was probably the more important one.
In terms of pure talent, the 49ers had the best team this season. They led the NFL in Pro-Bowlers and if fans judgment isn’t your thing, they also led the NFL in All-Pros, as decided by writers, and had the top cumulative team rating on ProFootballFocus. Football is more than a contest of who has the most good players, obviously, as the Chiefs and their 6 Pro-Bowlers won 2 games. It’s a team game, but since the 49ers are in the Super Bowl, it’s safe to say they’re more than just a collection of great players. They’re a very, very good team, especially since Colin Kaepernick took over at quarterback.
This is tough. On paper, the 49ers are have clearly been the better team this season, but games aren’t played on paper. On paper, the Broncos and Patriots were clearly better teams than the Ravens too and they both lost because the Ravens have been playing at a much higher level over the past month and a half. I like to think that an elite team from the superior NFC conference would have better luck, which is why I’m ultimately taking the 49ers, but it’s definitely no sure thing. The game will probably come down to turnover margin, which is tough to predict. I am making this a significant play because it’s the Super Bowl, but any other week, this would be a 1 or 2 unit insignificant play.
San Francisco 49ers 24 Baltimore Ravens 20
Pick against spread: San Francisco -3.5 (-110) 3 units
Ravens win by 1-6 +420 2 units
49ers win by 1-6 +310 2 units
I’ve done this in each of the past two years and it’s worked out. Basically, if the Ravens win by 1-6, you win +420 and lose -100, so +320. If the 49ers do so, you win +320 and lose -100, so +220. Essentially, you’re getting +270 will this game by decided by 6 or fewer points. 7 of the last 11 Super Bowls have been decided by 6 or less and considering how hard of a time I had picking between these two teams, I say there’s a good chance this happens again.
Both teams won’t make a field goal longer than 33.5 yards -140 2 units
It sounds weird, but both teams have only done so in 10 of 46 Super Bowls. Also, 49er kicker David Akers has hit from 34+ in just 5 of his last 10 games.
Colin Kaepernick less than 43.5 rushing yards +130 1 unit
Don’t like this one was much as the others, but I feel like most people are probably going to take the over because they remember Kaepernick’s ridiculous game against Green Bay. I love fading the public and Kaepernick has only gone over this total in 3 of 9 starts. I know he could go over this at any point with one run, which is why it’s only one unit, but I do like this one.