Dallas Cowboys @ Philadelphia Eagles – Game Preview

DALLAS COWBOYS @ PHILADELPHIA EAGLES – MONDAY 1.30AM IRISH TIME

The Dallas Cowboys travel to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles in a huge NFC East clash on Sunday Night Football.

Both teams share the division lead at 9-4, with the winner taking outright pole position in the East, meaning their destiny is in their own hands over the remaining two weeks of the season, while the other must hope for favours from other teams to wrestle back the division lead or a wildcard spot.

Only two weeks have passed since the Eagles gave Dallas a 33-10 beating in Texas, a game that the Eagles controlled from the outset. Mark Sanchez engineered five scoring drives in the first half alone as the Cowboys zone defence was torn apart, while the Philly defensive line got plenty of pressure on the much-heralded Dallas O-line and Tony Romo.

Not taking anything from the level of play from the Eagles that day, but Dallas fans will be hoping the circumstances surrounding that game played a big part in their team’s disappointing display.

Dallas returned from New York in the small hours of Monday morning after a Sunday Night win in New York, meaning the usual short Thanksgiving game turnaround was even shorter. Couple that with Tony Romo’s unique weekly schedule this term where he takes Wednesday practices off to aid his surgically-repaired back, then there is enough to suggest the 10-day gap between games this time around could do wonder’s for both sides of the ball for this Cowboys squad.

Seattle provided the blueprint of how to get the better of Chip Kelly’s offence last week. Sanchez failed to reach 100 yards through the air, as Richard Sherman and Co played lockdown coverage on the outside, with Bobby Wagner controlling the middle of the field and the defensive line constantly a menace for the Eagles front five.

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Look for Chip Kelly to again go hyper-speed against a Dallas defence that has given up a huge number of big-plays so far this term, both through the air and on the ground, as the zone scheme ran by Rod Marinelli two weeks ago was abused by Jordan Matthews and Jeremy Maclin, whilst LeSean McCoy went for a over a buck fifty on the ground.

For the Cowboys to win this game on Sunday, they could do well to take the blueprint of the Super Bowl winning teams of the 90’s. The running game was largely a non-factor in the Thanksgiving Day game between these two teams, so look for Romo to open things up early through the air, quick hitters to Bryant and Witten, with slot corner Cole Beasley working the middle of the field, opening up running lanes for Murray as the game wears on if the ‘Boys have a foothold in the game.

No question this is the most important game of the year for both these clubs come Sunday night, and with the extra time to prepare, look for it to be a tighter matchup than the first clash just a few short weeks ago.

Prediction: Dallas Cowboys 34 – 31 Philadelphia Eagles.

Philadelphia Eagles @ Dallas Cowboys – Game Preview

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES @ DALLAS COWBOYS – 9.30PM IRISH TIME

NFC East rivals square off tonight in the middle game of the Thanksgiving Day triple-bill as the Philadelphia Eagles take on the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium.

The first matchup of the season between these two couldn’t be any bigger, with outright first place in the division on the line, after both teams have started the season 8-3.

Tony Romo casually led the Cowboys on a game-winning drive with less than three minutes on the clock on Sunday against the Giants as Dallas emerged with a narrow three-point win, while Philadelphia blew out the Tennessee Titans in Pennsylvania.

Mark Sanchez made his third start of the season in that game, and the former New York Jets signal caller has played well since taking over from the injured Nick Foles, throwing for over 300 yards in each of his three starts.

However the troubles he had in New York have still been evident, throwing two interceptions in each of his last two games. The former USC Trojan will have to be careful with his decisions tonight if he is to come out on top of a potential shootout in the Lone Star State.

The Cowboys offensive line has been arguably the best in football this term, carving out holes for the NFL’s leading rusher DeMarco Murray. They’ve also done a fantastic job in pass protection, highlighted by the time Romo had in the pocket on the crucial game winning drive in Met Life on Sunday, where the quarterback hung in for over 9 seconds before delivering a strike to Dez Bryant in the back of the endzone for the go-ahead touchdown.

However not everyone is impressed with the bigs boys up front in Dallas. Eagle nose tackle Bennie Logan provided some perfect “bulletin board” material for the Cowboys o-line earlier this week saying: “Yeah, they’re OK. I don’t really know what’s great about them.”

This should be a fantastic clash between two old foes, with points to be expected given the 56 point Vegas line. Both defences have struggled in the secondary, so it could be a back-and-forth type affair all the way to the finish.

Kick off from AT&T Stadium is 4.30pm – live on Sky Sports

Prediction: Philadelphia 27 – 30 Dallas

New York Giants @ Dallas Cowboys – Game Preview

NEW YORK GIANTS @ DALLAS COWBOYS – 9.25PM IRISH TIME

The Dallas Cowboys welcome the New York Giants to AT&T Stadium for what is always a tough NFC East clash.

Eight of the last 10 games between these two divisional rivals have been decided by 7 points or less, so expect another tense affair in Texas tonight, with the New York Giants coming in on the back of an embarrassing shutout defeat in Philadelphia a week ago.

Not only did the G-Men lose the game, they also lost starting wide receiver Victor Cruz with a serious knee injury that will see him out for the year. Look for first round draft pick Odell Beckham Jnr to step up and replace Cruz, with the former LSU man also proving a danger in the return game.

The Cowboys also suffered a significant injury, though not a season ender, with right tackle Doug Free set to miss around 2-3 weeks after being rolled up on in the win in Seattle a week ago.

Once again DeMarco Murray ran for over 100 yards last week in Dallas’ win over the reigning Super Bowl Champions Seattle Seahawks, joining legendary Jim Brown as the only running back with at least 100 rushing yards in each of their first six games of the season.

Despite struggling to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks early in the season, the Cowboys front was finally able to get something going in Seattle, forcing Russell Wilson to escape the pocket often. Up against a much less mobile signal caller in Eli Manning, look for that ‘Boys pass rush to finally get home this week.

The blueprint for the Dallas offence won’t stray very far from what has went right on this 5-game win streak. Look for this punishing offensive line to open holes for Murray and keep dangerous pass rushers Jason Pierre-Paul and Mathias Kiwanuka at bay.

New York will be eager to bounce back from that shutout loss against the Eagles last week. The new-look offence under Ben McAdoo was actually playing pretty well prior to the shutout and look for Manning to get back into rhythm, with Beckham the new weapon for the former Super Bowl winner.

Despite the stats suggesting this could well be close again, Dallas is on too much of a roll right now. Look for them to control the ball with Murray, while Dez Bryant will be looking for success on the outside, especially if Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie can’t go.

 

Prediction: New York Giants 17 – 27 Dallas Cowboys

New York Jets @ San Diego Chargers – Week 5 Preview

New York Jets @ San Diego Chargers

Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, California

Kick Off 9:25pm in U.K. & Ireland on Sky Sports 2 and 2 HD

The Jets and Chargers square off on Sunday evening in what should will be a one-sided affair. Even if the latter were not at home, this would still not be close, but not because of Gang Green’s inability, rather the Chargers ability. Philip Rivers is the best quarterback in the NFL right now and the team from New York will feel the full effects of his mastery when they meet. He torched the best defence in football in Week 2 to the tune of 284 yards, 3 touchdowns and 0 interceptions, and has the best quarterback rating in the league to date. With a subpar secondary, there is no doubt the Jets will be in for a long night.

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The most stimulating storyline of Sunday’s matchup will be how New York quarterback Geno Smith handles himself on the gridiron after a controversial week. The second-year pro, who yelled an expletive to a jeering fan last week, may not have long to go as a starting quarterback and a poor performance in San Diego could force Rex Ryan’s hand sealing his fate. Michael Vick is waiting in the shadows of Gotham for his chance to be a starter once again. He must feel disheartened considering he could still be the Eagles starting quarterback had it not been for an injury last season that led to the world’s discovering of Nick Foles, a stud not many knew was taken in the same draft as Andrew Luck and RGIII. Back to Geno, who should be given the start against the Denver Broncos in Week 6 regardless of how he plays against the Chargers, unless of course lightning strikes twice and he yells another expletive to a fan. Smith must not be benched if he does not play well in “the greatest city in the history of mankind”, but forgiven and encouraged so he has at least one more chance at home to show what he can do, he deserves as much.

Fortunately for Geno, the spotlight will probably be off him after Rivers lights up the Jets secondary. There is no doubt the New Yorkers have talent up front, but is there really much of a difference between their front seven and Seattle’s? Rivers can handle the heat. He threw a touchdown pass to Antonio Gates against the Seahawks while being manhandled by Michael Bennett.

Unfortunately for Geno, his receivers for Sunday look a lot like 2013’s, what with Eric Decker (hamstring) and David Nelson (ankle) questionable to play – news Jets fans do not want to know about going into a game versus a Bolts defence ranked 12th against the pass and only two first downs worth a game away from being ranked in the top five.

Gang Green are third in the league in false-start penalties with eight, not exactly the sort of statistic you want going into a loud Qualcomm Stadium. On a positive note (for Jets fans), the Chargers are down to their third center and coincidentally their third running back, Donald Brown, who is, as a result of a weakened offensive line, only averaging two yards per carry.

Distributing the ball to two capable receivers can be extremely difficult for opposing defences to deal with, so four is a nightmare. Indeed, Rivers likes to spread the ball around and attack areas all over the field with his ‘Fantastic Four’, is Gates Mister Fantastic or ‘The Thing’? Heck, he’s all of them. Keenan Allen, Malcom Floyd and Eddie Royal, who has scored four touchdowns in the last two games, make up the rest.

Of course, the Jets could handle Rivers & Co. better than anyone else yet. Perhaps, with the return of Dee Milliner alongside a pass rush with a league-leading 14 sacks going up against an injury-inflicted offensive line, the Bolts will fall, but it is very very unlikely. Expect thunder.

Minnesota Vikings @ Green Bay Packers – Game Preview

MINNESOTA VIKINGS @ GREEN BAY PACKERS – 1.25 AM FRIDAY IRISH TIME

The Green Bay Packers return to Lambeau Field to host the Minnesota Vikings in an NFC North clash at 1.25am tonight.

Green Bay thumped divisional rivals the Chicago Bears this past Sunday 38-17 in the Windy City, with the offense firing on all cylinders. Aaron Rodgers threw for 302 yards and four touchdowns, a pair each for Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson, who both went over 100 yards on the day.

Minnesota meanwhile were equally-impressive winners over the Atlanta Falcons, 48-21 in the scoreline. Rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater made his first NFL start in the game and played like a ten-year veteran, throwing for over 300 yards and rushing for a score.

However Bridgewater took a shot to the ankle late in the game and had to leave, with Christian Ponder coming in for mop up duty. The former Louisville star is officially questionable for the game in Wisconsin, with Ponder waiting in the wings to get the start under centre if Bridgewater doesn’t make it.

After a very encouraging first start, the smart money would be on Bridgewater suiting up for this always crucial NFC North battle.

Whichever quarterback gets the nod this evening won’t have it as easy as this past Sunday. Green Bay ranks fifth in pass defence, giving up only 214 yards a game, through the first four weeks. Opposition quarterbacks included Russell Wilson, Matt Stafford and Jay Cutler.

Prediction: Minnesota 17 – 31 Green Bay.

New Orleans Saints @ Dallas Cowboys – Game Preview

New Orleans Saints @ Dallas Cowboys – Sunday Night 1.30am Irish time

The Dallas Cowboys return home looking for their third successive victory as they host Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints at AT&T Stadium Sunday night.

After dropping their season opener in Arlington, the Cowboys notched two road wins over Tennessee and last time out in St Louis, where they came back from a 21-0 deficit to win 34-31.

Surprisingly, the New Orleans Saints started the season 0-2, after consecutive road losses at Atlanta and Cleveland, but a home win against the Minnesota Vikings steadied the ship and Sean Payton’s team will go into the game with Dallas looking for a repeat of last year’s victory over the Cowboys.

The Saints offence had their way with the much-maligned ‘Boys defence last year in Louisiana, setting an NFL record for the most first downs in a game as they romped to a 49-17 win.

Payton once again has an impressive offensive cast to work with, despite the loss of Darren Sproles in the offseason. First round draft pick Brandin Cooks has gone a long way in offsetting the loss of Sproles, with the Oregon State star already taking on a large role with Brees under centre.

The Cowboys also drafted well this year; first round selection Zack Martin has started his NFL life superbly, helping carve out holes for the current NFL leading rusher DeMarco Murray.

The former Oklahoma Sooner has rushed for 385 yards over the first three weeks of the campaign, but rather worryingly has lost a fumble in each game.

Dallas attempted to improve their defence in offseason with the additions of Henry Melton and Rolando McClain, but both are set to miss out due to injury, while Sean Lee is also out for the year after tearing an ACL in offseason minicamp.

Once again, this has all the makings of another Dallas Cowboys shootout. New Orleans has more than enough weapons on offence to trouble another less-than-stellar Cowboys secondary, while the Dallas ground game coupled with the play action pass, has been dominant over the past three weeks.

Prediction – New Orleans Saints 34 – 31 Dallas Cowboys

Philadelphia Eagles @ San Francisco 49ers

Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, California

Kick Off: 9.25pm GMT – Sky Sports 2

The undefeated Eagles travel to the West Coast to face off against the 49ers on Sunday in this Week 4 matchup between two of last year’s NFC playoff participants.

The 49ers are already sitting 1-2 for the year, trailing the 2-1 World Champion Seahawks and the undefeated Arizona Cardinals in the NFC West. It’s still early in the season but in such a competitive division they’ll already be worried about falling too far behind their rivals and will need to win their home games to avoid that. Having christened the newly-opened Levi’s Stadium with a loss against the Chicago Bears however, San Francisco must lay down a marker in Sunday’s game, and that begins with the defense. The 49ers held a 19-4-1 record in regular season matchups at Candlestick Park since Harbaugh arrived in 2011, surrendering a meagre 13.2 points per game. The will need that home field dominance to carry over to Levi’s Stadium if they want to remain competitive in the NFC West, but that dominance was predicated on a strong defense which many thought suspect before the season. Star linebacker NaVorro Bowman is injured and will be until at least week 6, having been placed on the PUP list before the season started. Pass rusher Aldon Smith is also still absent as he serves his 9-game suspension for personal conduct and substance use violations and nose tackle Glenn Dorsey won’t suit up this season after knee injury ruled him out in August. Their secondary has lost starters at cornerback and safety in the offseason and has only seen Antoine Bethea arrive to help. Even with all these problems, the 49ers still rank 6th in yards against, and it’s clear that the defense will be at least competent until they can get some of their stars back midway through the season.

The problem for Jim Harbaugh is with his offense. After an offseason where they failed to score a touchdown, many assumed that San Francisco were merely hiding their light under a bushel, waiting for the real games to start so that they could unleash an offense which began to spark down the stretch last year. In their three games so far they have averaged just 20.7pts per game, tied for 19th in the NFL with the less-than-prolific Bills and Jets. The startling thing about these stats is when these points have been scored:

That’s right, of the 62 total points the 49ers have scored in 2014, just 3 have come after half time. In fact, they’ve been outscored 52-3 in the second half of games this season. Colin Kaepernick has been almost flawless through two quarters, and one of the worst QBs in the league in the third and fourth. They should be able to find their way into the end zone against a porous Eagles defense on Sunday night, especially with the expected return from injury of start tight end Vernon Davis, but having lost from winning positions at the half twice in the last two weeks, Kaepernick and co. can’t afford to take their foot off the gas or lose focus against Philly, especially at home. Given these spectacular capitulations, the Eagles might just be the worst possible visitors for San Francisco to host this week. Not only are Philadelphia undefeated, but they are also the first team in NFL history to have a 3-0 record having trailed by more than 10 points in each game. As good as the 49ers have been in the first half of games, the Eagles have been even better in the second half of them, averaging 24.7 points in these periods alone.

Nick Foles has been erratic to say the least, dispatching the Jaguars, Colts and Redskins in spite of inconsistent play, but he is still touching nearly 1,000 passing yards already and on course for a 5,000-yard season. These gaudy numbers through the air must be tempered by the less impressive rushing totals. With LeSean McCoy they boasted the best rushing offense in the league in 2013, the Eagles were brought back down to earth with a bang last week against a rejuvinated Redskins defensive front, managing just 2.2 yards per attempt. Similar numbers should be forecast against the 49ers, who have been solid against the run since Harbaugh took over.

While their attack has been excellent through the air, the same can’t be said of the Eagles’ passing defense. Last year they were the worst unit in football, and in 2013 they are again among the softest secondaries, ranking third behind the hapless duo of the Jags and Bucs. With the return of Vernon Davis, the emergence of Stevie Johnson after he broke the 100-yard receiving mark against the Cardinals and the constant threat of Michael Crabtree, who already has two TD receptions this season, there is hope for the 49ers offense against the Eagles. Although this isn’t their style, preferring as they do to use a ground attack to wear down teams before picking them off with read option and play action passes, they might be forced into passing should they fall far behind Chip Kelly’s quarterback-proof offense, and with both teams throwing relentlessly this could well be a high-scoring shootout.

A game of two halves? Definitely, and with offenses throwing and defenses sputtering there should be plenty of entertainment to keep you up late on Sunday!

Prediction:
Philadelphia Eagles 34
San Francisco 49ers 28

New York Giants @ Washington Redskins Preview

Divisional match-ups aren’t really the Redskins’ thing lately. Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement considering they’ve lost seven in a row, including an 0-6 sweep last season.

NFC East titles aren’t the Redskins’ thing in much the same way that freedom isn’t Scotland’s: no shortage of hard work and good will to make it happen, but lacking that determination in the clutch.

So as the Eagles soared to 3-0 last week, the ‘Skins slipped to 1-2 and parity with this week’s visitors: the New York Football Giants.

With Sideshow Sanchez shipped off to Philly, and the Jets mired in their own mediocrity, the glare of New York’s media has shifted to Eli, Coughlin, and Big Blue in the vainglorious quest to generate relevance, or failing that, hype.

It’s a bit of a reach for a team that limped to a 7-9 record last year, installed a new offensive co-ordinator, and somehow has Peyton Hillis on the payroll, but more of that anon. For now, back to the Redskins, a team whose jersey sales suggest they’re wedded to No.10 as their future. Their present however, wears No.8.

Torching the anaemic Jaguars in Week 2 didn’t earn Kirk Cousins many plaudits. Keeping pace with Chip Kelly’s Eagles, posting 427 yards through the air allied to four touchdowns and a passer rating north of 100 however, that did.

That the Redskins lost didn’t seem to matter. They competed, they contended, and left Philadelphia as the second-to-last men standing. For ‘Skins fans, even the subplots faded into the periphery: DeSean Jackson’s return to the Linc’, the loss of DeAngelo Hall, and Kai Forbath’s missed field goal all gave way to Cousins as he conducted Seán McVay’s offensive orchestra.

It wasn’t quite a case of “RG-Who?” but the question of “RG-When?” became a lot less pressing as Jackson and Pierre Garçon streaked their way past 250 combined receiving yards. The supporting cast chimed in, likewise the ground game, and suddenly concerns in the capital had switched to the defensive side of the ball.

While the idealist in all of us would love to see Robert Griffin III return to the all-slinging, all scrambling entertainment-fest that was his rookie season, successive injuries and the weight of pragmatism suggest that like the old grey mare, he just ain’t what he used to be. It’s still too soon to call time on RGIII, or liken his career to the footballing equivalent of Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain (at least not until he turns 27). Kirk Cousins might be more of a blue collar, Bon Jovi kind of guy, but Jon and the lads are still touring, and they’re Giants fans into the bargain.

They probably winced their way through pre-season as Eli & Co. struggled to adapt to Ben McAdoo’s new offensive scheme. Murmurs round the Meadowlands were of a team that was weeks away from mastering its playbook as Week 1 loomed, and went by in a whirl of ineptitude.

Manning was still throwing the ball to the other team, the defence was getting gouged and things went from bad to worse in Week 2 when the team in blue got rolled over by no less of a marquee name than Drew Stanton and the Cardinals.

The only upside seemed to be the solidity of Rashad Jennings at running back, posting respectable numbers through two weeks, and looking comfortable in singleback sets. Running out of three and four-wide looks kept safeties honest, and allowed the O-Line to focus on winning one-on-one battles. What’s more it offered a Big Blueprint for success.

Against a Clowney-less Texans in Week 3, the Giants’ ground game had a field day, going close to 200 yards rushing. As defenders moved into the box, Manning was able to exploit single coverage and tellingly, his touchdown pass to Victor Cruz marked the first time in 11 games that the double-act had found the endzone.

Whether or not they can replicate that feat on the road tonight could be crucial. Minus DeAngelo Hall and Duke Ihenacho, the Redskins secondary looks porous. This increases the necessity for Messrs. Kerrigan and Orakpo to generate pressure up front, and to force Eli to move off of his newly-adopted stance. With a clean pocket, especially off play action, the Giants could reap the rewards of going deep as the ‘Skins defence looks ill-equipped to stop them.

On the other side of the ball, the onus will be on Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Prince Amukamara to slow down the Jackson-Garçon air show that spiralled its way across South Philly. Tight coverage will be vital, likewise Antrel Rolle’s ability to cover and make the tackles that others don’t. It’s a receiving tandem that the Giants will hope to contain. Shutting them down looks unlikely.

As with any game however, this one begins and ends up front. Alfred Morris looks a better foil to the Washington passing game than Jennings looks to the Giants’. Both can and will post stat lines that compare favourably to anyone else in the league, but Morris should notch his numbers on fewer touches, and Cousins should do the rest.

Washington to snap their losing streak in the division, then but the Giants to keep it close.

At a guess? Redskins 31 Giants 27

How to bluff your way through Super Bowl XLVII

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.

The Teams

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.

Offense

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.

San Francisco

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.

Baltimore

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.

Defence

Since both teams are largely built around the defensive side of the ball, it only makes sense to take a look here too.

San Francisco

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.

Baltimore

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.

Kickers

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.