by Brandon Pemberton
While it’s the day we’ve been looking forward to since training camps opened up in July, it’s also bittersweet, knowing that the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens are playing the final game of the 2012 NFL season on Sunday. There are plenty of good stories related to the big game: Jim and John Harbaugh are the coaches and brothers, born only 15 months apart and coming from a father Jack, who was a good coach himself. Ray Lewis is playing in his final game, win or lose and the SI.com story that he used a banned substance to speed up his recovery from his torn triceps has trumped the fact that his 17-year illustrious career is coming to a close. Finally we have 49ers’ QB Colin Kaepernick who will being starting only his 10th game of his career – In New Orleans at Super Bowl XLVII, which by far is the most important and intriguing story of them all. The fate of the 49ers for the most part lays on his shoulders. I will preview and breakdown the game: Offensively, Defensively, and on Special teams and give you my winner.
Joe Flacco (l); Colin Kaepernick (r)
49ers: When head coach Jim Harbaugh decided to stick with Colin Kaepernick and make him the 49ers starting QB after Alex Smith went down with a concussion, he was taking a big risk. A move like that could split the locker room and possibly cost a team that already was good enough to make the Super Bowl, their season. But Kaepernick has been 7-2 as a starter (including 2-0 playoffs), adding a big play dimension to the 49ers that they lacked with Alex Smith at the helm. The 49ers utilize the zone read and read option very well with Kaepernick’s ability to use his legs, opening up more passing lanes off of play action and it also gives more running room for running backs Frank Gore and LaMichael James. They will have a tough task running up against the stout front of the Ravens, but they will and have shown the tendency to keep running the ball, to keep teams honest.
The 49ers passing game is much more explosive with Kaepernick’s strong arm and the 49ers receivers are benefiting from it. Vernon Davis had 5 catches for 106 yards and a TDs two weeks ago versus the Falcons. Randy Moss had 3 catches for 46 yards, his best performance in a while. While most think he his just a running QB, Kaepernick has shown the ability to throw accurate strikes from the pocket. Look for the 49ers to attack the Ravens linebackers and safeties in the passing game with tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker and with a fast running backs like LaMicheal James. I think that’s going to be the key for the 49ers offensively to beat the Ravens.
Ravens: The Baltimore offense is led by Joe Flacco who has thrown for eight TD’s and no interceptions in three playoff games thus far. Flacco has proved the doubters wrong about his ability to perform and win big games and is one game away from being in the “Elite” class of QB’s. This Ravens offense has been on fire, scoring 30 points per game in the playoffs. The one-two punch of Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce have been very effective, averaging 148.2 yards during the playoffs and allowing Flacco to hit targets down the field via playaction. Expect offensive coordinator Jim Cadwell to continue to feature the running game and take advantage of Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, and Dennis Pitta down field in the passing game. Also, the Ravens offensive line must do a good job protecting Joe Flacco. 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith has been on a sack drought lately and could have a breakout game.
Ray Lewis (l); Patrick Willis (r)
49ers: The 49ers defense is led by the two best inside linebackers in all of football, Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman. Watching them on film is a joy, they can do it all. They are great against the run and even better defending the pass. What the 49ers do scheme-wise is solely on Willis and Bowman’s ability to cover tight ends, running backs, and some slot receivers effectively. The 49ers are usually stout against the run and they must be ready for the Ravens stubborn, but effective rushing attack. Their defensive backs must play better as well. There were times vs the Falcons in which the safeties were caught out of position and allowed receivers to get behind them. The Ravens passing game is predicated on getting the ball down the field. Aldon and Justin Smith must put pressure on Ravens QB Joe Flacco and force him to make errant throws and possibly turn the ball over.
Ravens: The Ravens defense is playing its best football of the year at the right time. During the season, Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata, and obviously Terrell Suggs were all hurt and not at 100%. But during the playoffs, they have looked like the Ravens defense of old, allowing just over 14 points per game, not counting the 14 points their special teams unit allowed to Denver on two returns. When watching the coach’s tape, three players that aren’t household names: cornerbacks Carey Williams and Corey Graham, and Inside Linebacker Dannell Ellerbee, jumped off the screen. Williams and Graham have been excellent in the playoffs, challenging receivers with press, man-to-man coverage and disrupting the routes and timing. Dannell Ellerbee has been great, especially in pass coverage, covering the open areas of the field that Ray Lewis can’t at this point of his career.
Ray Lewis is obviously their emotional leader, clearly not the same player he once was, but he still gets his team in the right places pre-play and uses knowledge and smarts to make plays. Ed Reed will definitely pose a problem for the young QB Colin Kaepernick. He has baited the best of quarterbacks into throwing a pass they think he can’t get to, but he does. An interception in a big spot could decide the football game. Also, the defensive unit must play assignment, team defense when the 49ers go with their read option attack. If everyone sticks to their assignment and guys defeat blocks and tackle, they will be fine.
49ers: Kicker David Akers broke an NFL record with 14 missed field goals, a year after having the best season of his career. He’s been shaky all season and a bad performance by him could cost his team the game. KR/PR Ted Ginn Jr. is a big play threat, and could help the offense with field position.
Ravens: Kicker Justin Hunter has been very good this season, making 21-23 field goals. We know he’s great inside of 50 yards, but he hasn’t attempted or made a field goal outside of 50 yards all season. This game is played indoors, which is better conditions for kickers, so he might get a shot to show us where his leg really is.
Jacoby Jones is a Pro Bowl Kick/Punt Returner and one of the league’s best. He is not only a home run threat, but he is sure-handed as well.
Prediction: Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers are playing great football. The move to him as QB has paid huge dividends as they are in the big game, but I think the Ravens are going to force him to win the game from the pocket. This is the game in which Kaepernick makes a mistake or two that will give the Ravens a short field, allowing Joe Flacco to strike. I simply trust Flacco more in big game situation and I think he leads the Ravens to the victory. Ravens 24 49ers 23
Brandon Pemberton of Sports Trap Radio, for War Room Sports