It wasn’t all that long ago that the Baltimore Ravens looked dead in the water despite getting off to a 9-2 start.
Baltimore lost three games in a row, including a 23-20 defeat at home to the Steelers with Charlie Batch at quarterback, and it appeared that the Ravens’ stay in the playoffs would be a short one.
But head coach John Harbaugh made a bold move, firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and replacing him with quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell.
The offense, which often seemed to forget about Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice – he did not have a carry in the fourth quarter of the loss to the Steelers – became more balanced.
And though the Ravens lost a meaningless regular-season finale at Cincinnati, they have easily handled Indianapolis, Denver and New England to reach today’s Super Bowl and are averaging 30 points per game in the postseason.
In San Francisco, Harbaugh’s brother, Jim, made a bold move of his own, benching starting quarterback Alex Smith, who at the time was leading the league in passer rating, to start second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick. There were growing pains for sure, but Kaepernick has responded with dynamic play in the postseason, including setting an NFL record for quarterbacks with 181 rushing yards in a win over Green Bay.
And it will be because of Kaepernick that the 49ers will defeat the Ravens.
In Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, Denver’s Peyton Manning and New England’s Tom Brady, the Ravens have faced three stationary pocket passers in the playoffs. Kaepernick is not going to stand in one spot and allow the Ravens to get after him. Kaepernick might not run as much as he did against Green Bay, but just the threat of his running ability slowed Atlanta’s pass rush to a halt in the NFC Championship game.
Given that Baltimore’s biggest problem is its lack of speed at linebacker, that could be an issue. Ray Lewis hasn’t been running well for several years. At this point, he’s little more than an emotional leader. When he’s in pass coverage or trying to chase down a running back, Lewis’ lack of speed is exposed.
San Francisco’s defense also is much better than the unit Baltimore will field. The 49ers are a fast and aggressive group and will harry Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, not allowing him to step up in the pocket and loft the ball deep.
How much do the Ravens rely on their deep passing game? Consider this: No team has ever won a Super Bowl with a time of possession per game of less than 29 minutes. Baltimore averaged 28:09 because of its deep passing attack.
San Francisco is a 4-point favorite and that number seems a bit low, perhaps being a tip of the cap to the Ravens for knocking off a pair of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks en route to reaching this game.
But the NFC has been the better conference all season, and there’s no reason to think that will suddenly change.
Take San Francisco, 26-20
Championship Week: 2-0 ATS, 1-1 Straight up
Overall: 115-123-8 ATS; 163-96 Straight up
F. Dale Lolley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org