Ned Belliveau ’14
Next Sunday, the AFC Champion Baltimore Ravens face off against the NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers. The Ravens come in riding the emotional wave of team leader Ray Lewis’ announcement that this season will be his last. Lewis has been a member of the Ravens his entire career and is viewed by many on the team and around the league as an inspirational figure.
The 49ers have their own interesting story: the quarterback switch coach Jim Harbaugh made after a mid-season concussion sidelined starter Alex Smith. Smith’s replacement, Colin Kaepernick, has been electric, energizing the 49ers offense, including an NFL playoff record 181 rushing yards as a quarterback. The game is shaping up to be an intense matchup, especially given that the two head coaches are brothers. Now on to the analysis.
Baltimore O vs. San Francisco D
The Ravens are led by arguably the best and most complete running back in the league in Ray Rice, who rushed for 247 yards this postseason, including a sparkling 131-yard performance against the Denver Broncos in the divisional round. The Ravens must establish the run if they want to score any points on the vaunted 49ers defense. Quarterback Joe Flacco has emerged as the breakout star of the playoffs after easily disposing of the Patriots last week, throwing for 240 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. In fact, Flacco has not thrown an interception all playoffs. If Flacco can remain mistake free and continue to throw his killer deep ball, the Ravens have a good shot to replicate the offensive performances from their previous playoff contests.
On the other side of the ball, the 49ers are led by a fearsome run defense that allowed a mere 94.2 yards per game on the ground, which ranked 4th in the NFL. The team also only allowed 17.1 points per game, good for second in the league. The team’s defensive line is also a threat, as brothers Justin and Aldon Smith combined for 22.5 sacks this season. The Ravens must protect the ball and minimize mistakes, or the 49ers defense will make them pay.
Edge: I’m giving the slight edge to Baltimore’s offense because of Flacco’s excellent deep ball and the versatility of Rice.
San Francisco O vs. Baltimore D
The offense the 49ers will trot out next weekend in New Orleans is a different animal than what they brought out in the earlier weeks of the season. Kaepernick has allowed the team to go to a less traditional read-option style offense (much like the Redskins ran for most of the year with rookie Robert Griffin III), and this look, combined with Kaepernick’s speed, has confounded defenses all season long. The 49ers also have bruising running back Frank Gore to complement him on the ground and athletic tight end Vernon Davis, who has a knack for making big plays.
For much of the Raven’s recent history, defense has been their calling card, but in recent years teams have begun to exploit their weaknesses. However, during this playoff run, the Ravens have turned back the clock and turned into a fearsome unit, forcing eight turnovers and stifling opponent’s passing attacks.
Edge: The dual threat of Kaepernick poses an interesting threat to Baltimore’s defense, a threat they struggled with when they faced similarly talented Robert Griffin III in the regular season. Therefore, I’m giving the edge to San Francisco’s offense
The struggles of 49ers kicker David Akers have been well publicized, and he didn’t do much to help his confidence last weekend when he banged an attempt off the upright. The 49ers even tried out kickers after the game to see if they could find a replacement. They could not and Akers remains as the kicker. On the opposite sideline, Justin Tucker has proven to be solid for the Ravens, hitting an overtime game winner in the divisional round against the Broncos.
The area where the Ravens struggle the most, however, is kickoff and punt coverage. They were burned twice against the Broncos and were very close to being burned by the Patriots last weekend. The 49ers have explosive return men LaMichael James and Ted Ginn Jr., so watch out for potential big plays. The Ravens return man Jacoby Jones is also a big play threat, including a return of 108 yards during the regular season
Edge: The Ravens have the more confident kicker, but the 49ers have more big play potential. After mulling it over, this one is too close to call. Even
Both teams have legitimate intangibles to help get them pumped up for the game. Lewis’ retirement party would be properly capped off with a win and his Ravens teammates want to give him that joy. Flacco is also fighting against the notion that he is not an elite quarterback and despite a playoff run that has silenced many critics, it is obvious he wants the ring to silence them all. Not to mention this whole brother v. brother battle. Both coaches will be motivating their teams to try and best his brother. It will be an interesting matchup, but on the intangible side the advantage goes to Baltimore.
The Pick: After looking at all the angles, all the stats and all the game footage I still got nothing. It’s going to be a close game and it may come down to which team has the ball last. I’m basically tossing a coin here, but I’m going with the Ravens 26-21 to beat the 49ers and cap Ray Lewis’ career.