Thanks to a late half-point swing to Atlanta I was able to go 2-0 last week, taking my playoff tally to 7-3. Good, but not what I was hoping for.
After 2 weeks of build up, with everything from sibling-rivalry to deer antler hitting the headlines it's time to make my final pick of the season. Below you'll find what I consider to be the biggest and most important on-field battles along with my pick and some of the prop bets that I particularly like. After all, what's a Super Bowl without random prop bets!?
(NB: I am not responsible should you find yourself sleeping on a park bench after recklessly wagering on my pick)
- Colin Kaepernick's legs Vs. Ravens defense
I went back and watched what the Ravens defense has done this season against mobile Quarterbacks. They only faced 2 players with the kind of mobility that Colin Kaepernick has, in week 2 when they played against Michael Vick and then a week 14 trip to see Robert Griffin III.
The Eagles moved Vick around on designed rollouts that caused some issues to a Ravens defense that was missing the edge presence of Terrell Suggs and they struggled to maintain coverage as Vick extended plays, leaving Jeremy Maclin all alone in the endzone for an easy touchdown. They also had some issues with the QB draw which was successful for Philly on a few occasions, including at the end of the game when Vick ran a QB draw from the 1 to take the lead.
The Washington offense, with it's zone reads and options, is a lot closer to San Francisco's. Baltimore chose to defend Griffin on the zone reads, forcing him to hand it off to Alfred Morris almost every time. This was great in that it contained Griffin's explosive speed and limited huge gains, but boy did they struggle to keep Morris under control (Atlanta defended the zone read in the same way 2 weeks ago and were also punished by the running back). Some of that can be explained by the absence of both Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe at middle linebacker. But it wasn't just that, they were getting moved around up front by an offensive line that isn't close to the level the 49ers have been playing at this season. The Ravens were also undone again by a QB draw in a big spot, this time with Kirk Cousins running in a 2-point conversion to take the game to overtime.
Baltimore might just have to commit someone to a QB spy around the goal line, or keep some bigger bodies in against empty sets because they were far too many holes for the QB's to run up the middle. They can't afford to give Colin Kaepernick space to take off, otherwise they'll be in the kind of trouble Green Bay found themselves in, but they will need to be stouter in the middle as well if they want to stop Frank Gore running all over them while Kaepernick is standing there and happily taking a defender out of the play.
- Patrick Willis & NaVarro Bowman Vs. Ray Rice & Vonta Leach
Ray Rice entered the season with a chance to take the "Best Running Back in Football" title. It didn't quite work out that way thanks to Adrian Peterson and something of a down year production-wise from Rice, but he's still an incredibly dangerous all-round threat and Leach continues to be the best lead blocker in the NFL, but they're going to be up against a different kind of speed and ferocity at middle linebacker.
The 49ers have held opponents to just 3.7 yards a carry this season thanks in part to the play of their big beasts in the middle. Both Willis and Bowman have fantastic range and it will be a struggle for even someone of Rice's speed to beat them to the edge without some help and their physicality will challenge Leach in the holes. However, unlike most middle linebackers they very rarely leave the field even for passing downs and their condition in the latter stages of the game will be crucial should the Ravens be looking to run the clock out and sustain drives.
We shouldn't leave out Rice's backup either. Rookie Bernard Pierce has done exceptionally well in his relief role, showing speed and great power too. He could well be used to try and tire out Willis & Bowman.
And it's not just in the ground game that these players will match up, Rice is a huge part of the Ravens receiving game (61 receptions this season), but the 49ers have done a great job defending the running back on passes, ranking 8th in Football Outsiders DVOA against RB's and allowing just 38 receiving yards a game to backs.
- Justin Smith Vs. Haloti Ngata
It's very unlikely that these two will be in a play together, and yet it's very difficult to talk about one without the other. Before JJ Watt started destroying Quarterbacks with ease and regularity, these were the best 2 3-4 DE's in football. Both are relentless beasts who can take over football games, and yet they've been hampered by injuries all year. Ngata has had knee and shoulder problems that, while not taking him out of games, have slowed him down while Justin Smith's torn tricep, suffered in week 15 and causing him to sit out the last 2 regular season games, will require surgery after sunday and has resulted in a dramatic slide in his performance.
So why bring them up? Well they're both the lynchpins to their teams front 7 against both the run and pass. Both are capable of taking over a game and creating havoc in the offensive backfield. Ngata has recovered from his injuries and his form is improving, while a week off should have given Justin Smith more time to heal and prepare (although he will apparently require surgery after the season) and hopefully drag some production out of Aldon Smith too. Which ever of these big defensive beasts has the better game could go a long way to deciding which defense gets the upper hand.
- 49ers secondary Vs. Torrey Smith
Torrey Smith ran riot over the Broncos secondary and set the tone for an upset, against New England however he was handled by press man coverage with safety help over the top. It was reflective of how his season has gone, feasting when left alone with a cornerback, but struggling against physicality at the line of scrimmage. The 49ers have been fantastic this season against balls traveling 15 yards or more downfield, but that didn't stop a good deep ball team like Atlanta bloodying them in the NFC Championship Game, and I don't expect Baltimore to shy away from testing San Francisco deep.
Part of this battle will be decided by how well Flacco is protected...
- Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin, Alex Boone & Anthony Davis Vs. Bryant McKinnie, Kelechi Osemele, Matt Birk, Marshal Yanda & Michael Oher
You didn't think I would leave the offensive lines out did you!?! These 10 have been outstanding through the playoffs, and in the case of San Francisco's line all year.
The 49ers offensive line ranked 6th in our OLR this season, but there's an argument to be made that they were the best and certainly the most talented O line in 2012. In Harbaugh Bowl I they were embarrassed, giving up 9 sacks and multiple stuffs. Since then Alex Boone has come in and been a big upgrade at right guard while Iupati and Davis have improved as well. They will also not be facing anything like the 2011 edition of Terrell Suggs which is a boon. Suggs has been heavily limited since his achilles injury and without him the Ravens pass rush has been poor, however the 49ers, for all their run prowess, have had a very high sack rate of 8.6%, although that has gone down with Colin Kaepernick under centre to a more manageable 6.8%.
Since re-shuffling their offensive line the Ravens have done a great job of protecting Joe Flacco, allowing just 4 sacks on 101 drop backs against quality pass rushers. With Justin Smith ailing and Aldon Smith having disappeared, it's likely that Joe Flacco will again be comfortable in the pocket on sunday. And the most comfortable QB is more often than not the one who performs best.
San Francisco 49ers (-3.5) over Baltimore Ravens
This pick is really a matter of trust. I trust Jim Harbaugh to make the aggressive calls on 4th downs and to have things up his sleeve that no one has seen yet. The 49ers are incredibly difficult to play against due to their speed and physicality across the board. It took New England nearly the whole 1st half to adjust to it, Green Bay simply couldn't live with it and Atlanta faded badly against them. Yes, without the Smith's performing the 49ers have been susceptible on defense. They've conceded 27.5pts a game since Justin Smith's tricep injury, and that's not including the 31 points they gave up in the 2nd half to New England when Smith originally got hurt. But they still have more talent, particularly at linebacker and cornerback, than Baltimore and match up very well against their tight ends especially.
Conversely I don't especially trust the Ravens. Their offense can get stale and predictable, especially on first downs where Jim Caldwell's play sheet is simply "run Ray Rice straight ahead". Having rediscovered Vernon Davis in Atlanta the 49ers now have a weapon to exploit the poor coverage skills of Baltimore's interior defense.
I'm also not terribly worried about Justin Tucker's impressive 91% success rate on field goals this season compared to David Akers' shocking 69% because again, I think Jim Harbaugh will be aggressive enough to forgo some of the field goal attempts.
I'm by no means saying that this game is a forgone conclusion. Recent Super Bowls have told us to never count anything out. But overall I think the 49ers are the better team and should prove so on Sunday. Although Baltimore's impressive redzone defense, coupled with San Francisco's surprisingly poor play both offensively and defensively in the redzone should keep it close.
Prediction: 49ers 28 - 24 Ravens
First Touchdown Shirt Number: Under 30.5, 1/1
Longest Field Goal Made: Over 45.5 yards, 4/5
First Touchdown Scorer: Frank Gore 7/1, Anquan Boldin 10/1
Will there be a Defensive or Special Team Touchdown?: Yes, 13/10
Colin Kaepernick Rushing Yards: Under 45.5 23/20
- Toby Durant (@TDonSport)
- The Pulling Linemen