Super Bowl Preview: Baltimore-San Francisco

The journey that began officially on a Wednesday night back in September, when two soon-to-be disappointments in the Cowboys & Giants kicked off the NFL season, comes to an end Sunday evening in New Orleans, as the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers meet in the Super Bowl. We’ll preview this game with the same format that’s been used throughout the postseason—break down the matchup itself, look at some historical context, examine betting lines and then make a prediction.

THE MATCHUP: Colin Kaepernick’s tremendous athleticism against the savvy experience of the Baltimore defense is about as compelling of an in-game subplot the Super Bowl has seen in a while. You’ve got Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed, all at or in the declining phases of their careers, but still with tremendous football savvy and intelligence. Can they, first of all, keep quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the pocket, and second of all, force him into making mistakes.

I don’t have much doubt Baltimore can do the former. Most NFL defenses, if they’re really committed to containment, can do it and I don’t see the Ravens having mental breakdowns on the edges. The second issue is a little tougher. I thought the 49er quarterback would get some road jitters in the NFC Championship Game at Atlanta and he didn’t. This is a much bigger stage of course, but Kaepernick has proven he can stay cool in pressure situations. It’s going to require maximum discipline, to take what the Baltimore defense gives him.

The other challenge the Baltimore defense faces is stopping Frank Gore between the tackles, and preventing Michael Crabtree or Vernon Davis from getting free down the field. If Gore establishes the inside running game, it can draw the Ravens’ focus to the box, and thereby create room for Kaepernick outside. And while the Baltimore bend-but-don’t-break defense worked to perfection against New England in the AFC Championship Game, Crabtree stretches the field better than anyone the Patriots have, and Davis gives San Francisco another game-breaker that New England was missing when Rob Gronkowski went down.

What it boils down to is this—San Francisco is a complete offensive team and the most Baltimore can do is to create a flow of play where the 49ers have to do long drives, thus giving them opportunities to beat themselves. And when the Ravens get a chance to make a play defensively—be it a turnover or a sack, they’ve got to do it.

Now let’s flip over to the side when Baltimore’s got the ball. The matchup here is almost as interesting, although from a storytelling standpoint there’s not as much nuance to it, which is why it’s getting less space. But this basically boils down to whether the Raven offensive line can keep Joe Flacco upright in the pocket and give him the time to get downfield to Torrey Smith and find Anquan Boldin on mid-range routes.

The 49er defensive front seven has a great reputation, while the Raven offensive line does not, but current form suggests the opposite. San Francisco’s been having problems getting to the quarterback in the playoffs—an issue that cropped up once defensive end Justin Smith got hurt at the end of the year, even though he’s been playing at less than full strength in the postseason. Aldon Smith, he of 19.5 sacks, has also been less a factor in January. Meanwhile, the Baltimore offensive line went through some position adjustments and the pass protection for Flacco has been superb in the playoffs, including against a very good defensive front seven in Denver.

What it boils down to is this—if the 49ers don’t put Flacco on his back, or at least make him move his feet a lot, the Baltimore quarterback is going to make big plays down the field and he’s got a good option at tight end in Dennis Pitta. And lest I forget the words I’ve probably written about every Baltimore game for several years now—make sure Ray Rice gets the ball and gets it a lot. I know it’s going to be tempting to air it out, especially if the Niners stop Rice’s first few carries. But keep giving the running back the ball and Flacco can build off that.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT: San Francisco goes to tie Pittsburgh for the all-time record for Super Bowl victories with number six. Another story that’s somehow gotten hidden is that the city of San Francisco is going for the 2012 World Series-Super Bowl Parlay, along with the Giants. That’s a parlay that Baltimore knows what it feels like to win (1970 Orioles-Colts). It’s only happened three other times, in 1979, 1986 and 2004. Oh, and if you haven’t heard, this is Ray Lewis’ last game and it’s the first time ever that two brothers have been the opposing head coaches in the Super Bowl.

THE VIEW FROM VEGAS: The standard line, used as the basis for predicting in this space, is showing San Francisco (-3.5) with an Over/Under of 47.5. You can still get an extra half-point on either number if you want the dog or the under, depending which book you look at. The money has clearly come in on Baltimore, as the 49ers opened at (-5). I’ve seen reports that suggest it may move back up over the weekend, with most of the general public betting late and the feeling that they will prefer the 49ers.

PREDICTION: There are two key questions to ask—which team wins if both play their best. And which team is most likely to leave its fans scratching their heads in frustration. For the past several years, Baltimore has been the answer to both questions in lot of matchups. This year that’s not the case. As the Raven defense gets older, their upside on a game-to-game basis isn’t as high, but they’ve stopped shooting themselves in the foot. San Francisco is the team that controls its destiny—if they play their best, no one in the NFL is as complete a team. But with a young quarterback, the Super Bowl stage, a kicker who’s been in a slump…who knows.

So do you play the upside or do you play steadiness? Bob Knight once said that victory favors the team making the fewest mistakes. In that light, I’m taking Baltimore to win outright, 24-21.

Outright Winners: 6-3
Pointspread Winners: 6-1-2
Totals Line: 5-4
*Did not pick Washington-Seattle, citing Redskins’ fan bias.