There’s not too much on the line for the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.
Only the last game of a legend’s career. A chance for their quarterback to take the final step to greatness. The prospect of adding a crown jewel to another defensive great’s career. And, of course, big brother putting little brother in his place.
“Not too much?” Sorry, that should say “Everything.”
The Ravens have had quite the impressive playoff run to get to the league’s biggest stage. They knocked off upstart Indianapolis, won a shootout in Denver against a high-powered offense, and smothered the top offense in the league in New England to win the AFC Championship. That has John Harbaugh’s team in New Orleans, set to take on his younger brother Jim’s San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.
To say that this was expected would be a gross overstatement—the Ravens lost four of their final five regular season games, painfully limping into the playoffs. A combination of improved health, the offensive line gelling and their quarterback getting hot at the right time have gotten them three straight wins and a chance to add a second championship in franchise history.
In their playoff opener, Baltimore had its four biggest names on defense—Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata—on the field together for the first time all year. Reunited, the defense has played exceptionally well this postseason. Remove the two special teams TDs the Broncos scored, and the Ravens D is allowing just 14.3 points per game in the playoffs.
No doubt the Ravens’ defense will be fired up to send Lewis out with another championship, and trying to get Reed his first ring only serves to add fuel. One of the league’s all-time greats will have to shake off the distraction of questions about PED use being thrown his way and focus on handling the 49ers’ potent offense, led by Colin Kaepernick. The defense will be faced with the unenviable tasks of not only slowing down Kaepernick and Frank Gore in the run game, but also not selling out and getting burned by Kaep’s deadly accurate arm.
The Ravens’ reshuffled offensive line also has some rough sledding ahead. Even with DT Justin Smith not at full strength, he and Aldon Smith lead an excellent San Francisco pass rush, one backed up by arguably the best linebacking corps in the league. Baltimore has four players on the O-line that weren’t starting in their current position in the regular season finale, with two (Bryant McKinnie and Marshal Yanda) not starting at all. They’ll have to keep their QB’s jersey clean while creating holes for Ray Rice against the league’s second-best run defense.
Speaking of that quarterback, Joe Flacco is on a roll that puts him amongst the ranks of some of the greats. Through the first three rounds of the playoffs, he’s thrown eight touchdowns and no interceptions. Only five other quarterbacks have matched those numbers over a full playoff run, and all five won the Super Bowl.
Flacco, receivers Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, as well as tight end Dennis Pitta are likely salivating after seeing the passing numbers the Packers and Falcons were able to hang on the 49ers. While San Francisco’s defense has very few flaws, they’ve been beaten deep so far in these playoffs. It just so happens that Flacco is one of the best deep ball throwers in the league, while Smith and Jones can outrun any defensive back in the league and Boldin has ripped balls away from defenders throughout his career.
The 49ers, since Kaepernick took over, have one of the league’s most explosive offenses, and a stifling defense that has shut down the league’s best offenses when it matters most. As hot as they are, Baltimore is even hotter, with seemingly everything coming together at the right time. The past few seasons have seen several teams get hot at the right time and roll to championships, and the Ravens have all the ingredients. Their quarterback is playing at a historic level and their defense is healthier than it’s been all year, not to mention that they’re playing their hearts out for two legends. It’s a perfect mix for Baltimore, and it’s tough to see them being denied.
Prediction: Ravens 27, 49ers 20