Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers: Super Bowl XLVII Pick

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.

Baltimore Ravens

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.

The Verdict

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

Prop Bets

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.

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Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers: Super Bowl Preview

Colin Kaepernick vs. Joe Flacco. That’s our Super Bowl quarterback matchup. In the era of the quarterback, that seems inconceivable. A guy with 9 career starts and…well Joe Flacco. In the last 20 years, there’s been one quarterback to win a Super Bowl without first making a Pro-Bowl and that was Eli Manning (version one), who made it the very next year. Even “game managers” like Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson first made a Pro-Bowl. Neither ever really posted eye popping numbers, but no one really did back then. Pro-Bowl voting is obviously flawed, but the general public usually does a good job of picking the correct quarterbacks to go to Hawaii, considering how prominent the position and its stats are.

However, this year, we will have a 2nd quarterback win the Super Bowl without making a Pro-Bowl as neither Joe Flacco nor Colin Kaepernick has ever been elected to the Pro-Bowl and I don’t think either have ever deserved it. Kaepernick is playing great now, but he’s not even in his first full year as a starter, and while Flacco has generally been solid, but he’s easily overshadowed by many other quarterbacks in his 5 years in the league. Let’s take a look at why that happened and what each team winning the Super Bowl would, for lack of a better word, “mean” for historical purposes.

San Francisco 49ers

Of the two teams making the Super Bowl, this is obviously the least surprising. The 49ers earned a 1st round bye for the 2nd year in a row and were favored in each of their two playoff games up to this point, including by 4.5 on the road in Atlanta. I had the 49ers as a possible exception to the Pro-Bowl/Super Bowl “rule” heading into the playoffs and I’m not surprised at all they made it this far.

There are two reasons for that. One, while Kaepernick has never made a Pro-Bowl and never deserved to make a Pro-Bowl, the reasons for that aren’t lack of production and elite quarterback play. It’s merely how long he’s been around. Kaepernick took over for the 49ers at quarterback more than halfway into the season, starting his first game week 11, and while he’s played at a Pro-Bowl level ever since, it has only been 9 games, including just 7 regular season games. That doesn’t earn players a trip to the Pro-Bowl, no matter how you play in those 7 games.

The 2nd reason is just how good this supporting cast is. They led the NFL in All-Pros and Pro-Bowlers and there is not a single weakness on this roster. They run the football among the best in the league, with Frank Gore leading the way, Colin Kaepernick scrambling or rolling out when applicable, and LaMichael James mixed in here and there.

They have by far the best run blocking offensive line in football and they hold their own in pass protection as well. While it’s true that they’ve allowed 41 sacks this year, 9th in the NFL, that’s more on Jim Harbaugh’s instance that quarterbacks wrap up and take the sack when they know they’ve lost, instead of trying to force it out.

In terms of pass block efficiency, which also takes into account hits and hurries, the 49ers rank a middle of the pack 17th. It’s just that Alex Smith was “worst” in the NFL, taking a sack on 33.3% of pressured drop backs. Kaepernick is much better in that regard because of his mobility, however, and since he took over, he’s taken just 18 sacks in 9 games.

Along with their offensive line and running game, they have two talented receivers in Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. Davis was invisible on the stat sheet up until last week, but that was just because Kaepernick was throwing so often to Crabtree, who was playing the best football of his career. They don’t pass the ball enough for both receivers to put up huge numbers. Even though he wasn’t appearing much on the stat sheet, Davis is still among the best blocking tight ends in the NFL.

Defensively, you know the story. They’ve had the league’s #2 scoring defense in each of the last 2 seasons, though they did allow 3 more points per game in doing so this year than last year. Their front 7 is probably the best in football. All 4 of their linebackers are amongst the best in football at their respective positions, including Ahmad Brooks, who doesn’t post eye popping sack numbers, but is among the most consistent in the NFL at getting pressure and is also arguably one of the best run stuffing linebackers in the NFL. And then, of course, there’s Justin Smith.

If there’s one flaw on this defense, it’s that you can throw on them. Their secondary played well this season, ranking 2nd in the league in YPA allowed, but we’ve seen several elite quarterbacks throw on them before and we’ve also seen some of the not quite elite guys throw on them as well lately. They haven’t been getting quite the kind of pressure they normally get on the quarterback with Justin Smith not playing 100%.

Aldon Smith has kind of faded away with Justin not commanding as many double teams in front of him and if you get time, you can throw on this secondary. It just hasn’t been an issue yet because of how well Kaepernick is playing, but they have allowed 24.8 points per game over their past 5, coinciding with Smith’s injury, not including a Kaepernick pick 6 and a special teams touchdown allowed to Seattle. 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. Still, this is the best supporting cast in football and that’s one of the biggest reasons why they are here, despite a lack of a “traditional” Pro-Bowl quarterback.

Baltimore Ravens

While the 49ers being here isn’t surprising in the least, this is about the exact opposite. This was not a good regular season team. That’s just a fact. They went 10-6, which was tied for the worst record among playoff teams, and they easily could have been 8-8 if Ben Roethlisberger (or even Byron Leftwich) hadn’t gotten hurt and Ray Rice hadn’t converted 4th and 29.

They won a ridiculous 5 games by a field goal or less, now up to 6 after an overtime victory over the Broncos, and they outgained opponents by 20 yards in the regular season. They lost to Charlie Batch at home and fired their offensive coordinator in the same 2 week span. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m willing to bet that no team has ever made the Super Bowl after doing that, at least until now.

The NFL is no stranger to seeing less than stellar regular season teams go all the way, as the 2007 Giants, 2010 Packers, and 2011 Giants have all recently won Super Bowls with similar or worse records to the 2012 Ravens. However, when those teams have done it, we’ve always been able to look back at how they ended their regular season and say “that’s why they won, they had momentum.”

Unlike those 3 teams, who all had to fight to get into the playoffs and peaked at the right time because of it, the Ravens started this season 9-2, and a fraudulent 9-2 at that, doing it with smoke and mirrors and pulling out several crazy close victories. They appeared to peak early and proof right everyone who called that 9-2 record a fraud, losing 4 of their next 5 games, including two by exactly 3 points after starting 5-0 in games decided by 3 or less.

They weren’t hot heading into the post-season. They were the exact opposite. They tripped backwards into the playoffs. I guess you can point to a 33-14 week 16 victory over the Giants as a “sign of things to come,” but it was reasonable to believe that any momentum they had coming out of that game was lost when they rested starters the following week, in an eventual loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

All of this is fact. They weren’t a good regular season team. So what happened? Well, I think the takeaway from this whole thing is that sometimes less than stellar regular season teams get into the playoffs and it’s a completely new season. They started out with a home win over the overrated Colts, but after back-to-back road wins in Denver and New England as underdog of more than a touchdown, they’re clearly a much improved team.

Ray Lewis’ return obviously has a lot to do with that. Lewis himself isn’t even playing that well. Sure, he leads the post-season with 44 tackles in 3 games, which sounds like he’s playing well, but when you consider that just 9 of those tackles have gone for a “stop,” it’s not so impressive (a stop is defined as a tackle within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on 1st down, 6 yards on 2nd down, and the full distance on 3rd or 4th). He’s also had significant issues in coverage, allowing 15 catches on 19 attempts for 178 yards.

However, it’s Lewis’ intangible effect. He’s the signal caller and the emotional leader. That’s why this defense is playing so well. 12th in the NFL in opponents’ scoring in the regular season, the Ravens have allowed 43 points (excluding 2 special teams touchdowns) in 3 games, despite facing Andrew Luck, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning and playing a double overtime game. Their forcing turnovers and tightening up in the red zone and they just made Tom Brady look as confused on a football field as I’ve seen him in years. Their defense is playing better than the 49ers’ right now.

But it hasn’t just been a defensive effort. They wouldn’t have gotten this far if it was. They’ve had good defenses before, but they still lost twice in the AFC Championship from 2008-2011. The limiting factor in those years was Joe Flacco. Despite going 5-4 in the post-season in his first 4 seasons in the league, breaking several NFL records, Joe Flacco never really had played well. It was always the defense. Coming into this post-season, Flacco had completed 134 of 247 (54.2%) for 1532 yards (6.2 YPA), 8 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions in his post-season career and had just 2 games of 200+ yards passing. He has 3 already this year and has completed 51 of 93 (54.8%) for 853 yards (9.2 YPA), 8 touchdowns, and not a single interception.

Already I mentioned the thing about Pro-Bowls and Super Bowls. Joe Flacco has never made a Pro-Bowl and he has never deserved to make a Pro-Bowl, but none of that matters because right now he is playing like a Pro-Bowl quarterback. Lots of credit should be given to Joe Flacco, but lots of credit also has to be given to new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, who is calling plays at the NFL level for the first time in his life, and credit has to be given to the Ravens for making the switch at offensive coordinator and canning Cam Cameron. That might have been the turning point of their season.

While the 49ers made a ballsy move to bench Alex Smith, the Ravens did a similar thing at offensive coordinator and like the Smith/Kaepernick switch, it’s a big part of the reason why they’re here. We have a Super Bowl matchup between a team that has benched their starting quarterback and a team that has fired their offensive coordinator this season. Normally those are white flags. These two teams are here because of those moves.

If they were playing like they were 4 weeks ago, the Ravens wouldn’t have a chance against the 49ers on a neutral field. However, the Ravens have become a very complete team and dangerous team in the post-season and, for that reason, they will be able to compete with the 49ers, who are the NFL’s most complete team in general. I’ll have an actual pick closer to the game.

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