RAVENS’ HEAD COACH, QUARTERBACK EXPERIENCE TRUMPS 49ERS’ YOUTH
By Joe Platania
NEW ORLEANS — An older brother re-asserted his authority over a younger sibling.
A team that specialized in defying the odds 12 years ago did so again.
And the leader’s last ride ended with a hard pump of the brakes and a coast into Victory Lane, complete with loads of confetti littering the seats.
Feb. 3 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, a leader, a brother and a team all helped write one of the most compelling stories in Super Bowl history as the Baltimore Ravens won their second Super Bowl title in their 17-year history with a spine-tingling, 34-31 win against the San Francisco 49ers before 71,024 fans.
And besides the storylines that accompanied head coach John Harbaugh and retiring linebacker Ray Lewis, the team’s newest leader and star — quarterback and Most Valuable Player Joe Flacco — firmly stamped his ticket to elite status, if he didn’t have it already.
Flacco used his five years’ worth of experience and rose to the level of the moment in a dominating performance that could have served as a clinic to San Francisco signal caller Colin Kaepernick — he of only 10 NFL starts, third fewest for a starter in Super Bowl history — who appeared rattled and confused at times before leading a furious second-half rally.
Flacco (22-for-33, 287 yards, three touchdowns, two sacks, 124.2 rating) finished the postseason with 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions, matching a feat accomplished by none other than San Francisco legend Joe Montana (1989) and St. Louis’ Kurt Warner (2008), and making the Ravens the 12th team to win multiple Super Bowls.
Flacco attempted his last 195 passes of the season without an interception since the pre-halftime 98-yard pickoff runback by Denver’s Chris Harris in December.
“Joe Montana was my favorite quarterback [as a child],” Flacco said. “To be anywhere next to him is pretty cool.
“It’s unbelievable. We don’t make it easy. That’s the kind of city that Baltimore is and that’s the way we are. We did it all for them back home.”
“Joe has the guts of a burgular,” Harbaugh said said. “It’s a glorious, glorious day. … How could it be any other way? It’s never pretty. It’s never perfect, but it is us.
“That was us today, just the way we do it.”
Defensively, just as the Ravens effectively put the Wildcat out of business with two stifling wins against the Miami Dolphins in 2008 — including a wild-card playoff victory — they may have provided a blueprint — at least during the first half — for how to stop the read-option fakes out of the pistol offensive formation, one that had bedeviled them in Washington early during the December road loss to the Redskins.
For his part, Lewis ended his career with a seven-tackle performance that seemed mostly invisible. But he didn’t seem to care.
“There’s no greater way as a champion to go out with the men on my last ride that I got to go out with,” Lewis said. “When you look around this stadium and … Baltimore! We are coming home, baby! We did it!”
But San Francisco had to try a different approach against the Ravens after last Thanksgiving’s 16-6 loss at M&T Bank Stadium, when previous starter Alex Smith got sacked a franchise-record nine times.
Kaepernick (16-for-28, 302 yards, touchdown, interception, three sacks, 91.7 rating; 62 yards, seven carries, touchdown), and the offense that had signaled a supposed sea change in offensive philosophy, seemed to be the answer.
But another experience edge came into play on the sidelines as fifth-year NFL head coach John Harbaugh used everything at his disposal to outmaneuever younger brother and second-year ‘Niners mentor Jim Harbaugh.
The Ravens — effectively putting an injury riddled season behind them, which included a risky offensive coordinator change in December — seized control right from the beginning, with an average drive start of their own 40-yard line, getting two touchdowns during three red-zone trips, and by converting six of eight third-down plays during the first half alone while the ‘Niners were unsuccessful on four of five.
As it turned out, the Ravens — the 21st Super Bowl winner to never trail during the game — needed every bit of that advantage, as San Francisco nearly pulled off a 22-point comeback, which would have been a Super Bowl record.
RAVENS SEE THE LIGHT
For a time, it seemed that only a power failure early during the third quarter — thought to be unprecedented throughout Super Bowl history — could stop the eventual champions, as the 49ers rallied from a huge deficit to make it a five-point game.
But, just as he had done many times during the season, Anquan Boldin bailed out the Ravens and attempted to make sure their early cushion would hold up.
Running out of a stack formation to counter the San Francisco man-to-man, Boldin caught a third-and-3 pass and ran it for a 30-yard play to the 49ers’ 35. Three plays later, on third-and-1, Bernard Pierce circled left end and outdistanced Donte Whitner and Aldon Smith for a key tide-stemming first down at the 18 as the third quarter ended.
Two plays later, Flacco’s play-action fake ended with a sideline pass to Boldin at the 5-yard line. Ray Rice bulled down to the 1 and came up short on the next play as well. Flacco was then forced to roll far to his right and throw the ball away, so Justin Tucker’s 19-yard field goal kept it a one-score game, 31-23, with 12 minutes, 54 seconds left.
Kaepernick had a chance to tie it up; he found veteran receiver Randy Moss for 32 yards at the Ravens’ 39 before Gore cut inside, then outside for 21 more yards to the 18. Kaepernick then dropped back and found the left sideline open. He rumbled into the end zone for a quarterback-Super Bowl-record 15-yard touchdown.
But an Ed Reed blitz forced the ‘Niners to miss on a two-point conversion pass to keep it at 31-29 with 9:57 remaining.
San Francisco nearly got the ball right back, but nickel back Chris Culliver interfered with Torrey Smith on a third-down pass, giving the Ravens a huge break with their first penalty of the half. A subsequent pass to Boldin seemed to get a first down at the 46, but a replay challenge marked the ball short.
It was Boldin (104 yards, six catches, touchdown) to the rescue again with a 15-yard catch into 49ers territory, but a later third-down pass that fell incomplete seemed to stall the drive. But San Francisco was called for being offsides, and that set up Tucker’s 38-yard field goal with more than four minutes remaining to stretch the lead to five.
Back came San Francisco, driving from its own 20 to the Ravens’ 40. From there, Frank Gore (110 yards, 19 carries, touchdown) broke off a 33-yard run around left end, which ended when Reed shoved him out of bounds. Kaepernick ran for 2 yards to the 5 just before the two-minute warning.
From that point, San Francisco’s offense felt the loss of outside speed receiver Mario Manningham, leaving the tall, but slow, Michael Crabtree (109 yards, five catches, touchdown) as their only option. Jimmy Smith knocked away a third-down pass for him, and Reed seemed to be holding him from getting to the corner for the fourth-down fade.
The Ravens took an intentional safety — the eighth safety in Super Bowl history — and Josh Bynes’ tackle of Ted Ginn Jr. on the subsequent free kick ended the game. San Francisco had scored 31 points in its losing cause, tying the 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers for most during a losing Super Bowl effort.
BLOWING A FUSE, AND MAYBE THE LEAD
The game didn’t seem to be in doubt at halftime, but Jacoby Jones seemed to wrap up the Ravens’ championship by running back the second-half kickoff right up the middle and into the 49ers’ end zone for 108 yards and a touchdown, an all-time, Super Bowl and NFL postseason record, which padded the lead to 28-6.
It was the ninth kick-return touchdown in Super Bowl history, but only the third by a member of the eventual winning team. Two of those three, by Jones and Jermaine Lewis, were by returners wearing Baltimore uniforms.
Jones, the first player in Super Bowl history to score on a catch and return during the same game, had set a Ravens team record this year with three runback scores — one of them another 108-yarder, against Dallas in October — two on kicks and one on a punt return, the team’s only touchdown during the road win at Pittsburgh. To say the least, it had an electrifying effect.
Actually, it was a failure of an outside power feed that dimmed the lights minutes later when the 49ers took over the ball. After a 25-minute halftime show and the brief burst of action, the power delay lasted 18 minutes and the total stoppage — allowing for the players to warm up — totaled 35 minutes.
It meant that the Ravens’ offense and 49ers’ defense went nearly an hour and a half — 84 minutes, to be exact — without getting on the field.
But it was the 49ers’ offense that benefited most from the stoppage; Kaepernick ran for a first down and nearly connected with Crabtree on a deep throw, which Corey Graham broke up.
To cap off the seven-play, 80-yard drive, Vernon Davis — the most effective San Francisco receiver during the game with six catches for 104 yards — hauled in a catch at the Ravens’ 30 and Crabtree broke tackles from Williams and Bernard Pollard to run away for a 31-yard touchdown midway through the third period.
Linebacker Ahmad Brooks then beat left tackle Bryant McKinnie around the edge and sacked Flacco to force a punt. Momentum really turned when Ginn took the ball and ran around the right edge — where there was no containment — to again set up the ‘Niners at the Ravens’ 20.
A renewed Kaepernick then rifled another pass to Davis, who ran down to the 6. Frank Gore then got two good blocks on the right side and romped in for another San Francisco touchdown — the team’s second in a span of just 2:29 — to shave the Ravens’ lead to eight, 28-20. To make things worse, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata’s leg got rolled upon, forcing him to temporarily leave the game.
The 49ers stayed on a roll; Rice caught a second-and-7 pass in the left flat, but cornerback Tarell Brown knocked the ball loose and recovered it at the Baltimore 24 for yet another postseason miscue by the usually sure-handed Rice, his third.
Kaepernick nearly found Ginn in the end zone on a third-and-7 pass, but Williams tipped it away. David Akers’ subsequent 39-yard attempt was wide left — he led the NFL in regular-season misses this year with 13 — but the Ravens still couldn’t catch a break as Chykie Brown was called for running into the kicker.
The subsequent 34-yard attempt was good, and the 17-point blitz had taken more than four minutes to bring the 49ers within five, 28-23, nearly wiping out all the picturesque play the Ravens had put together from the time the game began.
RAVENS CASH IN EARLY
Things went right for the Ravens in all three phases within the game’s first five minutes.
On defense, Baltimore stayed focused and disciplined against the 49ers’ well-known pistol offense. Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe stuffed Gore on a first-down run and his teammates forced Kaepernick to roll right and throw incomplete as part of a three-and-out.
What also didn’t help was the fact that a 5-yard penalty for an illegal lineup penalty nullified a 20-yard pass to University of Maryland grad and San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis. The 49ers’ double tight end formation inadvertently covered up one of the wideouts.
It went from bad to worse when San Francisco’s Andy Lee — the NFL’s best punter with a 43-yard net average — kicked a low line drive, which Jones returned near midfield.
Flacco went to work on a six-play, 51-yard drive, getting the ball out quickly to fullback Vonta Leach for 8 yards when three receivers were spread out. From a double tight end set, Rice picked up a first down, then Flacco used a five-step drop to find Torrey Smith for 21 yards to the San Francisco 19.
Three plays later, an end-zone pass to Dennis Pitta was incomplete, but the drive was kept alive by an offsides penalty. The Ravens then switched from three to five wideouts and, from his comfortable shotgun position, Flacco applied the coup de grace.
The fifth-year quarterback zipped a seam pass to Boldin — the same play that twice burned New England during the AFC title game — for a 13-yard touchdown and a 7-0 Baltimore lead. During Super Bowl XXXV 12 years ago, the Ravens also scored first, but not until late during the first quarter.
But it didn’t San Francisco long to get into a 12-play rhythm behind a quarterback playing with a poise that belied his years. Kaepernick found a leaping Crabtree for 19 yards from the slot, then relied on Gore for two first-down runs.
Kaepernick carried the ball on a read-option play and gained 9 yards into Ravens territory and later found Davis for 24 yards to the Ravens’ 8 as Reed, who had to leave the game shortly thereafter with what appeared to be a minor left knee problem, was too late to close on the tight end, who hurt his elbow on the play. Reed soon returned to the sideline and to to the field as well.
But Terrell Suggs forced an end-zone incompletion and Paul Kruger recorded a thrd-down sack on a quick inside stunt — the first of his two first-half quarterback takedowns — to force the ‘Niners to settle for Akers’ 36-yard field goal.
THE LEAD GROWS; SO DO KAP’S NERVES
As the first quarter ended, Flacco — who completed six of his first nine passes and played to an early rating of 130 — showed the kind of mobility few have ever thought he had.
Flacco rolled left deep in his own territory and strong-armed a sideline throw to Pitta for 9 yards before beating an all-out blitz, rolling right and heaving a 31-yarder to Boldin at the San Francisco 34-yard line. A deep sideline throw to Smith was too far before defensive tackle Ray McDonald sacked Flacco to take the Ravens out of field-goal range.
But Baltimore not only held a four-point lead after one quarter, but the field-position advantage as well, even with Sam Koch’s subsequent punt sailing into the end zone.
Davis and the 49ers’ read-option made short work of that on a crossing route and took a heater from Kaepernick for 29 yards close to midfield. Davis gained 11 more yards by beating Lewis over the middle to the Ravens’ 40.
Paced by Kaepernick fakes, LaMichael James and Gore each ran the ball smartly on consecutive plays down to the 24 before Courtney Upshaw strung out James toward the sideline and forced him to fumble. Defensive end Arthur Jones fell on it to stop what had been an impressive San Francisco drive.
As with any game, the turnover battle was key; the two teams each posted a plus-9 ratio during the regular season.
It was up to the Ravens’ deeper backfield corps to help capitalize on the James turnover. They did, but the Ravens’ play-calling variety, Flacco’s variety of targets and smart execution also helped as the team put together a 75-yard, 10-play drive.
Three Pierce runs gained 12 for a first down at the Ravens’ own 37. Pitta then got clear for an 9-yard catch and Pierce then moved the chains again.
Flacco took over again and read a corner blitz, unleashing a back-shoulder throw to Ed Dickson for 23 yards to the San Francisco 29. Rice returned to the game for a 7-yard run before Dickson beat Donte Whitner in the deep left corner. Dickson also got his face mask grabbed, setting up a first-and-goal at the 4.
Two plays later, with Leach and extra tight end Billy Bajema in the game to simulate a power run look, Flacco expertly faked to Rice and zipped a 1-yard pass to Pitta for the Ravens’ second touchdown and a 14-3 lead midway through the second period. It was Flacco’s 10th postseason touchdown with no interceptions, and his already gaudy rating grew to 145.5.
Kaepernick’s sense of urgency grew as well, and the second-year youngster — only the fifth first- or second-year signal-caller to start the big game — soon threw the first-ever Super Bowl interception by a 49ers quarterback after 169 attempts and 17 touchdowns.
He overshot Randy Moss and Reed snared his first pickoff in eight games — his NFL-record-tying ninth postseason interception, drawing him even with Ronnie Lott, Bill Simpson and Charlie Waters — running it back to the San Francisco 38.
The Ravens were back in the red zone again, where they had scored 10 consecutive touchdowns. On third-and-9 from the 14, a corner end-zone pass for Smith against a blitz was too far, but Justin Tucker’s 32-yard field goal try turned into a fake and run that ended up 1 yard short.
San Francisco took over at its own 6, and Kaepernick’s callowness showed again. After a short run, a quarterback double-clutch and near-interception by Cary Williams in the left flat were part of a fruitless three-and-out.
Flacco then put the first nail in the 49ers’ coffin, stepping up in the pocket and finding Jacoby Jones far downfield. He caught the ball and fell down at the 7, got up without being touched and scampered into the end zone for a 56-yard score — the first score longer than 50 yards San Francisco allowed all year — with 1:45 left before halftime for a 21-3 lead, which seemed bigger because the Ravens were to receive the second-half kickoff.
But in the end, even Akers’ subsequent 27-yard field goal, which cut the intermission lead to 15 points — the largest Super Bowl halftime lead since Tampa Bay bested Oakland, 20-3, 10 years ago on the way to a blowout win — didn’t seem to matter at the time.
When the dust settled, for a leader, a brother, a quarterback — indeed, for a team — a season that provided more than the usual amount of ups and downs came together at the best possible time … and in commonplace, spectacular fashion.
Posted Feb. 4, 2013