So it’s that time of year again, where NFL fans dust off their old jerseys, have a few beers and gorge themselves on pizza in order to celebrate America’s greatest tradition; the Super Bowl. This year’s game sees the San Francisco 49ers face off against the Baltimore Ravens in New Orleans.
Now, we here at NFL-Ireland know that some of you out there just tune in once a year for the big game, so we’ve made this cheat sheet for you on Super Bowl XLVII (or 47, for you non-Romans) to help you trick your friends in to thinking you have a basic idea of what’s going on.
This year we see the 49ers (11-4-1 in the regular season) take on the Ravens (10-6). Both teams fell one game short of reaching this stage last year, thanks to some special teams mishaps. The 49ers lost to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship game after Kyle Williams fumbled two late punts, while (the now former) Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32 yard field goal to send the AFC Championship game to overtime against the New England Patriots.
This year, however, both teams got over the hump and won on the road in their respective Championship games. The Ravens exacted revenge on the Patriots for last year’s loss, while the 49ers came back from a 17-0 deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons.
The Ravens had arguably the harder route to the Super Bowl, having to take out Andrew Luck’s Colts at home before travelling to Peyton Manning’s Broncos (an instant classic that went to double overtime) and then going on the road again to Tom Brady’s Patriots.
The 49ers, on the other hand, beat Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers at home before making the cross-country trip to Atlanta to take on Matt Ryan and the Falcons. The 49ers’ win over Atlanta was the first time they had managed to win three games in a row all season.
Here we will look at how each team’s offenses function, and who to tell your friends should be getting more of the ball in the second half. Both teams made big calls in the season, which have changed how their offenses run, so it is hard to use too much of the regular season to judge them.
The 49ers replaced quarterback Alex Smith with second-year player Colin Kaepernick after Smith was concussed. Kaepernick is a more dynamic player than Smith, as he allows them to use what is known as the zone-read option.
The zone-read option (you’ll probably hear it referred to simply as “the option”) is a style of play that is quite common at the college level, but not in the pros. It relies heavily on the quarterback’s ability to make quick and definite decisions based on the look of the defence immediately after the ball is snapped.
The quarterback will have the option to hand the ball off to his running-back, keep the ball and throw it downfield to a receiver, or simply run the ball himself. It is this third option that truly makes the option so dangerous, and it is why San Francisco has stood by Kaepernick over Smith, since he is a better runner of the ball.
The 49ers offense will be built largely on the option, although Kaepernick prefers only to run it himself if the defence shuts down his passing lanes. He often hands it off to the human-wrecking ball that is Frank Gore, who should see a lot of action on Sunday. In the passing game, look for Kaepernick to target Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker.
The Ravens fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron towards the end of the season and installed former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell. Cameron was criticised heavily for not using star running-back Ray Rice enough, but its Caldwell’s ability to get the most out of the inconsistent Joe Flacco that has really helped the Ravens reach their second Super Bowl in their short history.
Quite simply, Flacco has been on fire during the playoffs. His eight touchdown passes are complemented by the fact he has yet to throw an interception. This has allowed him to see off arguably the two best quarterbacks since the turn of the century, in Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
Like the 49ers, the Ravens will want to control the clock, so expect to see Ray Rice get plenty of carries, especially on second down. Flacco’s main targets in the air will be the speedster Torrey Smith, the powerful Anquan Boldin and the underrated Dennis Pitta.
The Ravens’ passing attack has the added advantage of Rice being a very dangerous option out of the backfield, with his ability to make defenders miss in the open field giving Flacco a reliable safety blanket when there is nothing available down-field.
Since both teams are largely built around the defensive side of the ball, it only makes sense to take a look here too.
The 49ers’ defence is one of the most feared in the NFL; however, they have allowed an average of 28.8 points a game over their last five games. In fact, when you look at their record against teams who made the playoffs this year, you see that they give up just over 26 points a game, compared to 13 points against non-playoff teams.
A few weeks ago, it would have been expected that the 49ers would go after Joe Flacco, but the injury to Justin Smith has seriously stunted Aldon Smith’s production , with the latter not making a single sack since the former was injured in week 15, despite recording an astonishing 19.5 sacks in the previous thirteen games.
Justin Smith has played the last two games with 50% of his triceps tendon torn, but has clearly not had the same impact he had when healthy. Whether or not San Francisco can get to Flacco will seriously affect whether or not they can create the turnovers that this team once relied on so heavily.
This year, the 49ers forced 25 takeaways, which left them tied for 14th in the league with the Ravens. Curiously, both teams also had the same number of giveaways, with 16, leaving both teams tied for third fewest. It is an old cliché of football that whoever wins the turnover battle will win the game, with only 3 out of 46 Super Bowls being won by a team with a negative turnover differential.
It makes little sense to compare the post-season version of the Baltimore Ravens defence to their regular season stats. It was not until the playoffs that the Ravens finally had all four of their “big four” back.
The Baltimore “big four” consists of defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs and safety Ed Reed. With an average age of 32.5, it is no surprise that at least one of the big four have been injured throughout the season.
With the core of their defence back, Baltimore are a ferocious unit. As a team, there are so many big-hit specialists that the 49ers have to take extra care to protect the ball when running. When you factor in the emotion of Ray Lewis’ last game, everyone is expecting a huge game on the defensive side.
But there are weaknesses. They are an old team and lack some pace in the open field. They are also a very aggressive unit, which can leaves gaps to be exploited. It remains to be seen if this Ravens defence can handle the dual-threat of Colin Kaepernick, since Robert Griffin III posted a quarterback rating of 101.8 against them in week 15, although he was held to only 4.9 yards a rush.
This game is expected to be very close, so the kickers on each side could determine the outcome in of the Super Bowl. Both sides will be hoping that their kicker is more Adam Vinatieri than Scott Norwood. Since Sunday’s game will be played in a dome, neither will need to worry about the weather.
San Francisco – David Akers
A year is a long time in sport. No one knows this as clearly as 49ers kicker David Akers. Last year, Akers set an NFL record with 44 successful field goals from 52 attempts. He seemed to be carrying his form over from last season when he equalled the NFL record for longest field goal with a 63 yard strike against the Packers in week 1.
Unfortunately, Akers’ form dipped dramatically as the season went on, leaving him with only 29 field goals from 42 attempts, or a success rate of just 69%. In his last outing, his only attempt struck the top of the bar. He is clearly lacking in confidence right now.
Baltimore – Justin Tucker
Baltimore definitely has the upper hand in this area in terms of current form, with rookie kicker Justin Tucker, who replaced the infamous Billy Cundiff, connecting on 32 of his 35 attempts this season, including a long of 56 yards.
Cundiff has made three game-winning field goals this year, and has been incredibly reliable despite his youth. He has also made all four of his tries from over 50 yards. Given the chance, he could make himself a hero in Baltimore, especially considering what happened last season.
Potential Surprise Hero
It is almost an unwritten rule of the Super Bowl that a previously unproductive player will step up and make a big play at a crucial time in order to clinch the game for his team. When the Giants knocked off the 18-0 Patriots in Super Bowl XLI, David Tyree made arguably the most incredible catch in the history of the Super Bowl.
With this in mind, let’s look at one player on each team who is relatively unheralded, but could be that key player on Sunday.
San Francisco – LaMichael James
For anyone familiar with the college game, LaMichael James is anything but unheralded. He was one of the most dominant runners the NCAA during his time at Oregon, but has yet to break through with the 49ers. He did not have a single carry until week 14, so he is still fresh.
Against an old defence like Baltimore’s, and with the threat of Colin Kaepernick keeping the linebackers honest, James could well have a breakout game at the most crucial time. He has only been given 8 carries this post-season, but he has averaged around 7 yards per carry and scored his only NFL touchdown to date against the Falcons two weeks ago.
Baltimore – Dennis Pitta
Dennis Pitta is one of the most underrated tight ends in the NFL right now. Although he doesn’t put up the same numbers as Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham, Pitta is a solid receiver who can really contribute this Sunday.
The last time these two teams met, on Thanksgiving of last season, Pitta caught the touchdown to give Baltimore a 13-6 lead in the fourth quarter, so he has shown he can do it against a defence that is better at stopping the run than the pass. Couple this with the fact that Pitta has caught at least one pass for 20+ yards in each of his last five games and four touchdowns in that span, it is clear that he and Flacco have a great understanding of one another.
Extra Interesting Info
As a reward for staying with this piece for so long (or for figuring out how to scroll down), here are some facts about Super Bowl XLVII that you can annoy your friends with:
- The two head coaches are brothers. John Harbaugh (Ravens) is the older brother to Jim (49ers). Their coaching style was heavily influenced by their dad, who was also a coach in his time. His name is Jack and he is married to his lovely wife, Jackie. I’m not making this up.
- Not only are the Harbaughs the first set of brothers to face off as head coaches in a Super Bowl, but they were the first set of brothers to have faced off as head coaches in the NFL at all, when the Ravens beat the 49ers 16-6 on Thanksgiving Day in the 2011 season.
- As a result of this fraternal connection, you will hear some variation of the term “Harbaugh Bowl”, “Harbowl” or “Harbaul” around a thousand times. Do not turn it in to a drinking game; you will lose.
- Sunday will be the last game in the career of future Hall-of-Famer (and Madden 2005 cover star) Ray Lewis. He was part of the only other Ravens team to have won the Super Bowl, back in 2001, when they beat the Giants 34-7. He was named the game’s MVP, only the eighth non-offensive player to ever be given the award.
- Ray Lewis’ first career sack was against the Indianapolis Colts back in 1996. This may seem insignificant, except for the fact that the quarterback that Lewis sacked that day was Jim Harbaugh, the current head coach of the 49ers.
- During the week, Lewis was accused of using deer antler spray to aid his recovery from a triceps injury in order to be available for Baltimore’s playoff run.
- Both teams have a legend of the game nearing the end of their career searching for their first Super Bowl ring. The Ravens have safety Ed Reed, who has been with them since he was drafted in 2002, while the 49ers have probably the second best wide receiver ever in Randy Moss. It is unlikely that either will get another chance to win a Super Bowl.
- Super Bowl XLVII will be San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s tenth NFL start, the third fewest for a starting Super Bowl QB. He is behind Jeff Hostetler (six previous starts, won Super Bowl XXV) and Vince Ferragamo (seven previous starts, lost Super Bowl XIV)
- This is the first time in 10 years that a there will not be a quarterback named Brady, Manning or Roethlisberger playing in the Super Bowl.
- Neither team has ever lost a Super Bowl. Baltimore won their only previous Super Bowl back in 2001, while San Francisco won the most recent of their 5 back in 1995, when they beat the San Diego Chargers 49-26.
- If the 49ers win, they will equal the Steelers for most Super Bowl wins by a franchise with six.
- Only once has a player on the losing team won the MVP award, back in Super Bowl V, when Chuck Howley won the award despite the fact his Cowboys lost to the Colts, who were located in Baltimore at the time.
- Of last 15 Super Bowls, 12 have seen a team that is trailing by a single score or less have possession of the ball in the fourth quarter. In fact, the last nine Super Bowls have seen this phenomenon. This is a contrast to only 10 of the first 31 experiencing this.
- This is the first time since the creation of the Super Bowl that both losers of the Conference Championship games have met in the Super Bowl the following year.
- The Ravens scored one more point than the 49ers during the regular season, but conceded 71 more.
- Joe Flacco is the only NFL quarterback to have ever won at least one playoff game in each of his first five seasons. He was also the first quarterback to win two playoff games as a rookie.
- Joe Flacco’s contract expires at the end of the season. If the Ravens win and do not re-sign him, it will be only the second time in NFL history that a Super Bowl winning quarterback did not play for that same team the next season (barring retirements). The only other time it happened was when the Ravens released Trent Dilfer after winning their first Super Bowl.
- Also, Beyoncé.
Big thanks to Scott Kacsmar (aka @CaptainComeback) for providing some of these stats.