Remember the way it used to be with the Ravens?
Remember how they’d line up and club you to death with that defense, breaking up ball carriers and heisting interceptions and hanging thick chains around the scoreboard? Raw, medieval football. It wasn’t that long ago.
Think back to 2008 Baltimore, how tight in the fist they were, allowing barely 15 points a game and not tolerating a single 100-yard rusher.
Or ’09, when they went berserk against the run again — only 3.4 yards per carry allowed, the least in football. Or even last year, when they switched things up and directed their venom at the quarterback and became the top sacking club in the AFC.
It’s not that way anymore. The Ravens don’t chase those fancy defensive stats around. They commit un-fancy ones now, sometimes, like 400-plus yards to the Eagles and Cowboys and Texans — and to the Colts and Pats in the recent playoffs. At times they appear quite sturdy and other times they’re barely hanging on.
But this defense is in the Super Bowl, and none of those recent hell-raiser versions ever made it. And they can thank an offense that has discovered the deep ball and a quarterback that’s as poised and relaxed as anyone’s ever seen him. The only question remaining is, can the formula hold up for one more night down in New Orleans?
On the other sideline are the 49ers, back in the title picture for the first time since the 1994 season and flaunting the most complete roster in the league. Think back to early September, and the preseason questions were Alex Smith and Randy Moss and Brandon Jacobs and Teddy Ginn and maybe LaMichael James, the rookie speedback from Oregon. All offensive people. How much could Jim Harbaugh squeeze out of them? Enough to lift ‘Frisco, already a firm defensive club, to the tip-top of the NFC?
Turns out, Harbaugh didn’t need them to get there, with the exception of Smith, who held the QB job for the first nine weeks. Smith was plunking along at a clean 70.2 percent completion rate till Harbaugh found himself yawning once too often and yanked the fire alarm — a sudden November switch to Colin Kaepernick.
Since then Kaepernick’s been about a 62 percent passer, but he put 32 on the board against Chicago and 41 at New England, then 45 on the Packers in the first round of the playoffs. He’s turned the Niners into the most electric offense in football, and any coach will exchange that for an 8 percent dropoff in completion rate.
You had to appreciate the way Kaepernick kept it together in the first half of the NFC championship, when the TV graphic showed Atlanta with 200-plus yards of offense and the Niners with minus-two. Suddenly he begins taking them down the field … run by Gore … throw to Vernon Davis … run by James, etc. No sweat, brother, here we come.
The big Atlanta lead was peeling away and everyone knew it. The Niners were seizing control. The scene reminded me of a quote from one of those old 49ers, Dwight Clark or somebody, about how it was when you got into some basketball one-on-one with Joe Montana.
“Joe toys with you. He lets you score early and get ahead, just so he can come back and beat you.”
The NFC title felt a lot like that, the Niners lolling around for a while, down 17-0, checking out the girls in the park, then finally taking the ball and getting serious about things.
Too bad there isn’t some recent Ravens-49ers footage to look at, although I guess to some degree their 2011 meeting is recent enough. That was a 16-6 win for Baltimore, and on that night the Ravens really crowded the line and choked off the Niner attack (170 total yards) and sacked poor Alex Smith to pieces (nine times). Jim Harbaugh explained all the sacking this way:
“Probably three of them we got beat on a protection call. [We] rolled the dice with protection, and they had a better blitz than what we called. Three other times we physically got beat. The other ones were where Alex Smith could’ve gotten the ball out quicker.”
OLT Joe Staley gave the big picture summation. “We had a bad day on the offensive line.”
But you can throw the sacking angle out now because it’s Kaepernick, not Smith, running the offense, and if you guess wrong in pressuring Kaepernick he’ll break you for 25 or 30 or 50 with his legs. Ask the Packers, once they get off the iron lung, what it was like chasing him around Candlestick in their playoff a few weeks back.
If the Ravens are going to win, I don’t think it’s going to be with their offense. If the 49ers' scoring pushes into the high 20s or 30s, I don’t see the Flacco attack being right there with them, slash for slash, in a last-man-with-the-ball thing. I guess the cliché term is shootout, and the Ravens don’t want any part of one.
Although Baltimore’s offense has been sizzling since the second half of the Indy playoff, when the Flacco-to-Boldin connection suddenly got recharged, deep down the Raven DNA calls for patience and balance. They like the clock. They like Pitta on those eight-yard curls. They like Ray Rice and Bernie Pierce mashing inside the tackles. They like steam coming off the chests of enemy defensive linemen.
They’ve had a big crush on the deep ball in this postseason, Flacco casting it way down the middle of the field, but that’s an easy temptation against flimsy backfields like Indy’s and New England’s — or overrated ones like the Broncos’. San Fran’s secondary won’t let that happen. The 49ers' cover people — Rogers, Brown, Whitner, Goldson — aren’t flimsy.
No, Super XLVII will be decided on how high the Ravens can rise up on defense, how sturdy and quick to the punch they are. They’ll try to mangle Kaepernick if they catch him. They’ll throw him into the benches and take the flag if they have to, just to slow down the game and deliver a message.
Can they keep their defensive legs under them for an entire game? They’ll have to — to survive. Because the 49ers are quicker. And faster. And younger.
I’ll take youth and speed over grit and the bomb, and that’s why San Francisco, a very old ghost from the past, is the pick. Call it 27-16.