Two weeks ago, I tried predicting the outcomes of the NFL conference championship games by giving all four teams a number grade between 1 and 10 in 10 different categories. The results were mixed.
San Francisco came through over Atlanta. The equation didn’t add up for New England against the Baltimore Ravens.
I’ve brought back my abacus and NFL knowledge (stop chuckling) to take another stab for Super Bowl XLVII.
This isn’t a Joe Namath-style guarantee on who will win Sunday between the 49ers and Ravens. But the final point total below should reflect which team will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
Again, emphasis on should.
Baltimore: His name doesn’t carry the same gravitas as peers like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, but Joe Flacco is on pace for one of the greatest postseason statistical performances in NFL history. He has thrown eight touchdowns with no interceptions during the playoffs. The only quarterbacks to finish the postseason with at least nine touchdowns and no interceptions are 49ers greats who are now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Joe Montata (11 TDs in 1989) and Steve Young (nine TDs in 1994). The further emergence of Flacco as the league’s best deep passer puts him in line for a massive offseason contract extension. Grade: 8.5.
San Francisco: A little more than two months ago, Colin Kaepernick was making his second career NFL start in New Orleans replacing the injured Alex Smith (concussion). Kaepernick is now returning to the Louisiana Superdome on the verge of leading his team to a championship. Kaepernick’s running skills and strong arm have provided elements to San Francisco’s offense that were lacking under Smith. Kaepernick also continues to show poise beyond his years. He didn’t panic when the 49ers fell behind 17-0 in Atlanta before mounting a comeback. That is encouraging as Kaepernick prepares to step onto an even bigger stage Sunday. The experience edge, though, goes to Flacco. He has more playoff road wins (six) than any other quarterback in NFL history. Grade: 7.5.
Baltimore: Ray Rice is the workhorse. He finished the regular season with 1,143 yards and nine touchdowns. Speedier rookie Bernard Pierce has provided a nice change-of-pace element as a backup. Pierce led Baltimore in rushing during two of Baltimore’s three playoff games, including a nine-carry, 52-yard effort against the Patriots. Vonta Leach is considered the AFC’s best fullback and is reliable when carrying or catching the football. Grade: 8.
San Francisco: The judicious use of Frank Gore during the regular season is paying dividends. Gore’s average of 16.1 rushes per game was his lowest total since his rookie campaign in 2005. With his 29-year-old legs fresh, Gore churned for 119 yards in a second-round win over Green Bay and followed that with a 90-yard, two-touchdown performance against Atlanta. Gore (215 yards) and Kaepernick (202) are the NFL’s leading postseason rushers. Rookie LaMichael James and Anthony Dixon also have roles in the running game. Grade: 9.5.
Baltimore: Flacco’s top targets have developed niche roles. Torrey Smith is the deep threat, averaging 22 yards on his nine playoffs grabs. Anquan Boldin is the go-to guy when the chains need moving. All but two of Boldin’s 16 postseason catches have resulted in first downs. Tight end Dennis Pitta has earned the nickname “Big Smooth” from teammate Jacoby Jones because “he runs routes like a receiver.” Pitta has catches of 20-plus yards in all three playoff games as well as two touchdowns. Defenses also must account for Baltimore’s running backs. Rice led all AFC running backs in the regular season with 61 catches. Grade: 8.
San Francisco: For two years in the playoffs, Vernon Davis has reminded teams that he would notch far more prolific receiving numbers if showcased on another team. Davis is averaging a ridiculous 27.6 yards on 16 catches along with five touchdowns. The Falcons lost track of Davis and paid the price as he snared five passes for 106 yards and a touchdown. Michael Crabtree continues to carry the load for an otherwise average wide receiver corps. Randy Moss proclaimed himself the greatest wide receiver in NFL history earlier this week. The claim is laughable. Jerry Rice looked far more spry at age 40 than Moss does now at 35. Grade: 7.
Baltimore: Late-season improvement was apparent once again in Baltimore’s 28-13 win over New England. Unlike in last year’s AFC Championship Game, Patriots defensive end Vince Wilfork wasn’t able to disrupt Baltimore’s offense with penetration. Flacco also had plenty of time in the pocket to throw. Ravens center Matt Birk will play a key role Sunday. The 36-year-old Birk, who could be joining Ray Lewis in offseason retirement, must help account for San Francisco’s dynamic inside linebacker duo of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Grade: 8.
San Francisco: This is arguably the NFL’s top unit and deservedly draws consistent praise from 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh. Left tackle Joe Staley was the only Pro Bowl selection, but a strong argument could be made for left guard Mike Iupati and right tackle Anthony Davis. Right guard Alex Boone is a hammer when pulling on trap plays. Without strong blocking, 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman wouldn’t have the chance to show so much creativity with his formations and play calling. Grade: 10.
Baltimore: Kaepernick is in trouble if the Ravens can bring the same heat as the last time they faced the 49ers. Baltimore sacked ex-starter Smith nine times in that November 2011 matchup. Ravens outside linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs had three of them. “T-Sizzle” is starting to burn once again in the playoffs. His 19 tackles and two sacks in three postseason games almost match his entire regular-season output after returning from a torn Achilles tendon in mid-October. Pressure was the key to forcing Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to unravel in the second half of the AFC Championship game. Grade: 7.5.
San Francisco: Defensive end Justin Smith isn’t the only one feeling the pain from a partially torn triceps suffered in late December against Atlanta. Since he was hurt, outside linebacker Aldon Smith’s production has plummeted. After tallying 19.5 sacks in the first 14 games, Aldon Smith still hasn’t logged one even after Justin Smith returned in the playoffs. Aldon Smith and outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks (6.5 regular-season sacks) were both limited in all three Super Bowl-week practices but are expected to play Sunday. Grade: 7.5.
Baltimore: After surrendering the most rushing yards in franchise history during the regular season, Baltimore is doing a better job in the playoffs. This coincides with improved health from three Ravens stalwarts – Suggs, Lewis and defensive end Haloti Ngata. Lewis, the Most Valuable Player in Super Bowl XXXV, has a postseason-high 44 tackles since returning from a torn triceps. The Ravens also have forced fumbles at critical times, including a fourth-quarter strip of New England’s Stevan Ridley on another helmet-to-helmet hit by Ravens strong safety Bernard Pollard. Grade: 7.
San Francisco: Past results indicate how the 49ers fare in this category will be a deciding factor in Sunday’s outcome. San Francisco went 11-1 when not allowing the opposition to rush for 100-plus yards and 2-3-1 otherwise. Baltimore has a 6-0 playoff record under head coach John Harbaugh when fielding a 100-yard rusher. The Ravens have a far better rushing attack than either of San Francisco’s two playoff opponents (Green Bay and Atlanta), but making hay against a front seven highlighted by Bowman and Willis won’t be easy. Willis has an NFL-high 19 tackles during the postseason. Grade: 9.5.
Baltimore: As he plays through a shoulder injury, Ravens free safety Ed Reed hasn’t produced the volume of big plays that are a trademark of his future Hall of Fame career. Playing near his hometown of St. Rose, La., Reed will be seeking his first interception or fumble recovery since Week 13 of the regular season. The Ravens have weathered the loss of top cornerback Lardarius Webb (knee) thanks to the play of Corey Graham and Cary Williams. Each member of that duo has notched two interceptions during the playoffs. Pollard is the hammer in Baltimore’s defense and had nine tackles against the Patriots. Grade: 7.5.
San Francisco: The 49ers field the NFL’s top safety combination in Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner. Both have a good nose for the football – Goldson’s nickname is “The Hawk” — and are adept in coverage and run support. 49ers cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver each shagged an interception during the playoffs, but the latter generated bigger headlines last week for homophobic comments on Artie Lange’s radio show and the subsequent firestorm that ensued. Curious stat: The 49ers surrendered 300-plus passing yards in just two games this season. They won them both, making nice adjustments and pitching a second-half shutout against Atlanta after surrendering 24 points in the first two quarters. Grade: 8.
Baltimore: New Orleans native Jacoby Jones is seeking to make the same type of splash in his hometown as he did this season when returning four kickoffs/punts for touchdowns (including the playoffs). Ravens rookie kicker Justin Tucker has attempted only two postseason field goals, but there is no reason to believe he will be feeling pressure Sunday. Tucker nailed the game-winning kick on the road against the Broncos in double overtime. Linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo leads the coverage units. Grade: 9.
San Francisco: David Akers earned praise from Jim Harbaugh for making all of his field goals amidst manufactured crowd noise during Thursday’s practice. We’ll see if that carries over to the Super Bowl. The roughest season in Akers’ 14-year NFL career continued against the Falcons when he clanged a 38-yard attempt off the upright. That was his 14th miss this season. Akers was subjected to so much media questioning about his struggles during Super Bowl week that he became frustrated and responded, “Where’s the horse, because we’ve been beating it a lot.” The 49ers have no concerns about Andy Lee, who helped San Francisco finish tied with New Orleans for the best net punting average at 43.2 yards. Ted Ginn Jr. is a capable returner. Grade: 7.
Baltimore: With a victory, John Harbaugh would become the most prolific head coach in NFL history through his first five seasons. Harbaugh is currently tied with ex-Oakland head coach Tom Flores for the most postseason wins in that span with eight. Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell has done an outstanding job tweaking Baltimore’s offense since replacing the fired Cam Cameron in mid-December. Ravens linebackers coach Ted Monachino is reportedly a candidate to become Philadelphia’s defensive coordinator. Such a promotion would be well-deserved considering the development of young linebackers like Dannell Elerbe and Paul Kruger. Baltimore’s most underrated assistant is defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who kept the unit together amid injury in his first season replacing Chuck Pagano. Grade: 9.5.
San Francisco: Like his brother, Jim Harbaugh is making NFL history. Harbaugh’s 27 overall wins in his first two NFL seasons is tied for the third-highest total ever posted. Like with Caldwell in Baltimore, Harbaugh also is reaping the benefits of his own bold coaching move when benching Smith in favor of the unproven Kaepernick. Harbaugh’s top two assistants – Greg Roman (offense) and Vic Fangio (defense) – are worthy of head-coaching jobs themselves. But because quickly assembling a quality staff is so important, the eight NFL teams that had vacancies didn’t want to wait until the postseason had ended before making hires. Grade: 9.5.
Baltimore: The Ravens fit the “team of destiny” designation, becoming the first in NFL history to reach the Super Bowl after losing four of their final five regular-season games. The Ravens have rallied around Lewis and their franchise leader’s “last ride” before heading into retirement after 17 NFL seasons. The controversial Sports Illustrated report involving Lewis and his alleged use of a banned performance-enhancing substance – as well as his strong subsequent denial — became a secondary news item and minimized as a potential off-field distraction after Culliver created his own brouhaha. Ellerbe (ankle) and Pitta (thigh) practiced all week, which means the Ravens will be at full strength. One under-the-radar move that could pay off for Baltimore: Ex-Philadelphia Eagles offensive line coach and defensive coordinator Juan Castillo was hired two weeks ago as running game coordinator. Castillo has provided another set of experienced eyes as Baltimore prepares its game plan. Grade: 10.
San Francisco: Harbaugh was so thrilled with his how his team is handling pre-game preparation that he declared the 49ers had a “perfect practice” on Wednesday. While the Ravens had an extra week to prepare for San Francisco’s vaunted “Pistol” formation, Roman also had the chance to install even more funky plays and formations to keep Baltimore’s defense off-balance. The 49ers have far more experience handling the nuances of crowd noise inside a domed stadium that the Ravens, who haven’t played a regular-season game indoors since Week 3 of the 2011 season in St. Louis. The 49ers lost in the first “Har-bowl” against the Ravens last season, but San Francisco is a far different team with Kaepernick at quarterback. Akers’ inconsistent play doesn’t inspire confidence if this game comes down to a late field goal. Grade: 7.