Well, it’s that time of year again. The energy-sapping 16 game regular season is done and dusted. The play-offs are consigned to history and fans are getting excited about the possibility of another ‘wardrobe malfunction’. It’s Super Bowl time.
The climax of the short NFL season is upon us. Since September 5th, the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens have been touring round the USA with the goal of making Sunday the 3rd of February their season finale.
The teams have taken fairly similar routes to get to where they are.
San Francisco finished atop the NFC West, sneaking ahead of the Seattle Seahawks by virtue of a tied game with the Rams and dominating the Green Bay Packers in the divisional play-off round. They then travelled to Atlanta to take on the number 1 seed Falcons in the NFC Championship game – where they surprised a more than a few onlookers – by overpowering the team from Georgia 28-24. The most amazing thing about the 49ers this year though, has undoubtedly been their mid-season change of quarterback.
Alex Smith had been performing well. He was controlling games and had led the team to a solid 6-2 winning record. Then he went down with a concussion against the Rams in week 9 and the young 2nd year QB Colin Kaepernick stepped into the breach. At this stage Smith was the top rated QB for pass completion in the NFL, 3rd for passer rating and a genuine safe pair of hands. Kaepernick performed well whilst stepping in and was surprisingly given the starting job when Smith had fully recovered. It was a ballsy move from Niners coach Jim Harbaugh and has paid off with a Super Bowl appearance. An appearance where he will square off with his brother, John.
John Harbaugh led his Ravens team to a 10-6 record in the regular season which was good enough to beat the Cincinnati Bengals to first place in the AFC North. They then took out the Indianapolis Colts with minimum fuss in the Wild Card game before heading to Denver’s Mile High Stadium in the Divisional round of games. It took 2 spells of overtime but they eventually overcame the highly fancied – Peyton Manning led – Broncos 38-35. Following this energy sapping duel they were given little chance when heading to the number 2 seeded New England Patriots. Harbaugh had other ideas. A stunning defensive display shut down Tom Brady et al in Foxborough and the Ravens secured their place in the franchises second Super Bowl appearance since their inception in 1996.
As well as having similar journeys and brothers as head coaches, the teams also have very similar playing styles.
The NFL has become known over the past few years as a pass first league, and rightly so. Most teams centre their offence on a quality QB and talented receiving corps. San Francisco and Baltimore however, are teams who are known for their strong defence and power running games. Lead running backs – Frank Gore for the 49ers and Ray Rice in Baltimore – are elite players at their positions and both teams have great running options, especially San Francisco with the mobile Kaepernick under centre. The defences have no real weakness. Star linebacker and Baltimore defensive leader Ray Lewis is playing in his 2nd Super Bowl and final career game. He has been shutting down opposing offences for the Ravens since the franchise started back in 1996 and will want to go out with one last hurrah. On the opposite side of the field Aldon Smith will play in his first – possibly of many – Super Bowls, in this only his second season. Smith is the new kid on the block but Lewis will want to show him how the game is
Although both teams are centred on defence and the running game, they are no slouches when airing it out either. The Niners have looked more dynamic and have been making bigger plays since Kaepernick took over the starting role. He has great arm strength (he was drafted as pitcher by the Chicago Cubs in 2009 but decided against being a baseball player) and can fit the ball into spaces that his predecessor Smith rarely took chances on. He also has good receiving weapons. Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, AJ Jenkins and the evergreen Randy Moss have been playing well, with Crabtree especially gaining from the change at QB in mid-season. On the other side Joe Flacco is a quarterback who has taken flack (sorry!) throughout his career. He is similar to Alex Smith in that he is more of a game manager than changer but he has a very good arm which he is not often credited for.
With the down the field pace of Torrey Smith, the safe hands of Anquan Boldin, the dual threat at tight end of Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, and Ray Rice coming out of the backfield, Flacco has a wealth of options and possibilities on every play.
Weighing it all up it looks to close to call. 2 similar teams. Brothers as coaches. All conquering defences. Powerful offences. One thing is for sure, it’s going to be a brutal fight. I for one can’t wait. And here’s to another wardrobe malfunction.
Preview by Stephen McLean | Steviebhoy67 Blog