Baltimore Ravens or San Francisco 49ers... Take your pick...
With the greatest of sporting spectacles just around the corner, it’s time to look at the key protagonists…
1) Joe Flacco, Quarterback
Flacco has won playoff games in each of his first five seasons. This year's run has only served to highlight his composure when faced with the most trying and pressurized of circumstances.
Along the road to New Orleans, Flacco put two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Peyton Manning and Tom Brady to the sword - in their own backyards, thus only enhancing his claim to elite status; especially after throwing eight touchdowns to no interceptions and compiling a hugely impressive 114.7 passer rating in his three playoff victories this year.
Fast Fact: Flacco the only QB to defeat Bill Belichick's Patriots twice at home in the postseason, in both 2010 and 2013 respectively.
2) Ray Lewis, Inside Linebacker
The Lewis retirement tour continues to roll on all the way to the ‘Big Easy’. While age has seen that Lewis is no longer the all-conquering defensive leviathan he once was when he led the Ravens to a 34 - 7 victory over the New York Giants in Super Bowl 35, the linebacker very much remains the emotional heartbeat of the Ravens organisation.
Lewis could turn out to be one of the few all-time greats to not only go out with a championship victory, but as the only inside linebacker within the history of the game to compile over 40 sacks (41.5) and 30 interceptions (31).
3) John Harbaugh, Head Coach
John Harbaugh completed a historic matchup when his Ravens defeated the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game to set up this most compelling of family affairs with his Brother John, and get the Ravens to their first title game in 12 years.
Despite not having won a Championship, the older Harbaugh has fashioned a quite impressive resume in terms of win percentage since he took over as head coach on January the 19th, 2008.
In his four year tenure, Harbaugh has led the Ravens to 54 regular season wins and 26 losses, resulting in a win percentage of .675. His record in post season football is equally impressive, as under his stewardship Baltimore have won double the volume of games lost, winning 8 and losing 4, achieving a win/loss percentage of .667 in the process.
All very impressive perhaps, but as the vanquished Bill Belichick so eloquently put it ‘Stats are for losers’. Following the conclusion of Sunday night’s proceedings, we’ll know just how relevant they really are…
1) Colin Kaepernick, Quarterback
The second-year quarterback with just nine starts after taking over from Alex Smith in week 11 has lit the blue touch paper for San Francisco’s march towards a potential 6th Super Bowl title.
Since he made his debut in the 49ers 32-7 Monday night humiliation of the Chicago Bears, Kaepernick has been positively relentless, throwing for 1,814 yards, 10 touchdowns to only 3 interceptions, and compiling a 98.3 passer rating. Incredibly, his composure and explosiveness has stood firm in the face of enormous pressures that invariably come with post season games, none more so than in the NFC Championship bout where he instigated a fine recovery from a 17 point deficit at the Georgia Dome, a recovery that became the catalyst for a 28 - 24 win.
The combination of arm strength and running prowess very much marks him out as the ultimate dual threat Quarterback, as evidenced by his astonishing display against the Green Bay Packers, where he posted 444 yards of offense, 263 through the air (resulting in 2 touchdowns) and a phenomenal 181 yards and two scores on the ground.
Against a considerably improved Baltimore defense in the ultimate test of character, it’ll be interesting to see how a second year Quarterback, despite emerging victorious from his first ever play-off games, fares when the spotlight shines brightest.
2) Patrick Willis, Linebacker
Willis (120 combined tackles) has become the linchpin for one the most ruthless and uncompressing defensive units in pro football, one that finished the regular season 3rd in total defense (due in no small part to Aldon Smith’s 19.5 sacks, the second best in the league behind JJ Watt). Throughout the course of the 2012 - 13 season, this most miserly of units limited opposing teams to 17.1 points per game, 294.4 yards, and allowed just 273 points.
However, the stoutness that for much of the season had come to define the defense disappeared as the 9ers shipped an alarming 120 points going into the NFC Championship game.
Thankfully for the San Francisco faithful, the stinginess that had mysteriously vanished re - emerged to hold the Falcons at bay in a second half where San Francisco outscored ‘Matty Ice’ and co. 28 - 7. More of the same and the 9ers may well have a decisive edge come Sunday…
3) Jim Harbaugh, Head Coach
Jim Harbaugh never had the fortune to play on the biggest of all stages as a player, coming closest in 1995 after suffering an agonising defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he’s been arguably more successful as a head coach. As evidenced by an impressive win/loss record that stands at 27 - 8 - 1 (including play - off games).
In just two seasons after succeeding Mike Singletary, Harbaugh has guided the 9ers to an a NFC Championship game and now stands on the verge of possibly landing San Francisco its first title since the heady days of Joe Montana and Steve Young.
All the more astonishing when you consider the fact that numerous figures in the game believed that post season aspirations could be seriously derailed by Harbaugh’s bold decision to replace starter Alex Smith (at the time the 3rd rated Quarterback in the league with a 104.1 passer rating, and a completion percentage of 70%, having completed 25 of his 27 passes prior to what was to be his last start against the Rams) with what was essentially a rookie in Colin Kaepernick.
But a Super Bowl appearance due in no small part to the dynamic play making ability of the aforementioned Kaepernick, has more than vindicated that decision (doubly so when, with Smith under centre in last year’s Championship game against the Giants, the 9ers were 1/13 on 1st downs, largely due to Smith’s unimpressive 12/26 for 192 yards).
Verdict: Nullifying the read option may well go some way in deciding this game for the Baltimore Ravens. Despite Atlanta laying the blue print for reducing the effect of the run, (Kaepernick had just 21 yards rushing, a stark contrast to his performance against in the Divisional Round, where he had over 100), Colin Kaepernick was still able to use his strength and accuracy to hit Davis and Crabtree downfield (compiling over 200 yards, his longest pass being 33), thereby illustrating the considerable task awaiting the Ravens defense, even when the run is taken away.
John Harbaugh’s Ravens may be in possession of a defense that’s shown marked improvement in the post season, so much so that it ranks 7th, just one place below San Francisco’s much vaunted 6th placed defense, and has conceded just two points more (57 points to San Francisco’s 55) it may not have the pace and stamina to effectively contain the triumvum of Frank Gore, LaMichael James, and Kaepernick for the entire 60 minutes.
That being said, despite the offensive and defensive potency of the 49ers, there appears to be clear symmetry between the 2012 Ravens and the 2011 New York Giants.
Both looked shaky going into the post season, but once in they caught fire, blazing a path that led all the way to the promise land.
With Flacco in such imperious form, and a potent supporting cast comprising of Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta, Jacoby Jones, and of course Anquan Boldin, the Ravens boast a set that can spread the field to devastating effect, thus ensuring the possibility of what many would consider an ‘upset’.
However, with all things being considered, the ‘team of destiny’ and the Ray Lewis factor, I feel that this will boil down to a war of attrition; meaning only one winner - Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers.
Word of warning though, history has a habit of upsetting the odds…
Who is your pick and why? Tell us...
image: © pleeker