February 1, 2013
The 49ers need Aldon Smith (left) and Justin Smith to step up for their struggling defense.
NEW ORLEANS -- I don't know what kind of game this is going to be, but this Super Bowl really has it all.
John versus Jim; Harbaughs dueling at 53 yards. Ray Lewis versus Colin Kaepernick: A retiring all-time linebacker in his last game against the well-tattooed 25-year-old passer who might be the future of the position. Dean Pees versus Greg Roman: A Belichick-trained veteran defensive coach against a kid with lots of new ideas. Two terrific deep-throwers. Two running games that, at times, have dominated in a season full of passing records. Two defenses that, at times, have dominated too.
That's where I want to start, on defense. Twelve days ago, when I picked the Ravens to win 27-23, I knew I was picking a little bit against the grain. The 49ers are a great team with a potentially transcendent quarterback. (I mean, who plays like Kaepernick? One week, 181 rushing yards. The next week, he leaves the pocket to run on purpose one time -- for minus-two yards. Classic team guy. Takes what the defense gives him, and against Atlanta, the defense wasn't going to let him run, so he lets Frank Gore win the game.) And that quarterback, in his 10th NFL start, could put the Niners on his back and carry them to their first Super Bowl win in 18 years. I know that. We all do.
But I'm not sure the San Francisco defense can do its part. In the last five games, here's what the Niners defense -- the one we all talk about as being so dominant -- has put on the board:
Points allowed per game: 28.8.
Yards allowed per game: 391.4.
Sacks per game: 1.6.
Sacks by Aldon Smith and Justin Smith: 0.
So that's five ignominious weeks for a proud defense. And if we eliminate the Brian Hoyer start for toothless Arizona in the season finale, we're talking about a defense giving up 32 points a game over four games. And that, folks, can't be just wiped away under the gauzy storylines of a Super Bowl. Especially when that defense is going against a quarterback, Joe Flacco, who, in his last five games, hasn't thrown an interception.
I just re-watched the second half of the Niners' win at New England in Week 15. The 19-minute destruction of the San Francisco defense by Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady was so thorough, so stunning. And I know -- Tom Brady makes lots of teams look bad. But touchdown drives of 73, 86, 66 and 92 yards in 19 minutes? Brady no-huddled on at least half the snaps, and that's become more and more of a Flacco staple since Jim Caldwell replaced Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator. Brady owned the Niners linebacker underneath, taking an endless string of nine yards here, seven there. Brady hit Brandon Lloyd over the top of Chris Culliver. Brady piled up 317 yards in a little more than a quarter, and never looked more in control of a game than he did for those 19 minutes. The next week, Russell Wilson put up 42 points on the Niners. And in the playoffs, Green Bay and Atlanta put up 829 yards. The only bright light for San Francisco was recovering in the second half of the NFC title game and shutting out the Falcons -- but imagine how things might have been different if Matt Ryan saw a wide-open Tony Gonzalez streaking for the end zone on the potential last-minute game-winning drive.
On Sunday night, I expect a composed Joe Flacco to use that Brady tape against San Francisco. Caldwell has lots of experience against the Patriots from his Colts days. He has figured out that, like Brady, Flacco loves to command the offense in, at times, hurry-up mode and sometimes just as an effort to keep the defense from subbing. There is no doubt Flacco is going to be under pressure Sunday, and not just from a rested defense that will be desperate to regain its dominance. Flacco knows he's going to have to score in the high 20s, at least, to win, because the quarterback on the other side is not going to be stopped either.
I think it'll be a terrific game, and when I pressed the button on Baltimore 27, San Francisco 23 on the night of the conference title games, I thought to myself, I could have picked San Francisco just as easily and been just as confident. But I'm not going back. In Flacco I trust.
Player You Need to Watch This Weekend
David Akers, kicker, San Francisco (No. 2). It's become a cliché now, the skepticism over the best kicker in the league in 2011. He missed eight field goals out of 52 in 2011. He's missed five in the last five weeks, doinking one off the upright in weather-less Atlanta in the championship game. In a desperate attempt to boost Akers' confidence, Jim Harbaugh's been talking about Akers like he's some clutch Adam Vinatieri, looking so great in practice and kicking peerlessly. Maybe the words will help Sunday, but I doubt it. Everyone from Sonoma to Santa Cruz hopes this game doesn't come down to a late San Francisco field goal.
Five Things I'll Be Watching This Weekend
1. The final Baltimore game of a couple of legends. Ray Lewis, you know. Ed Reed, you figure. Very hard to imagine any way the Ravens -- who will be severely cash-strapped after the season with free agents Flacco, Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger to sign -- will invest a dime in the return of the 34-year-old Reed. Enjoy the last dance for both.
2. Aldon Smith trying to break a 20-quarter slump. He did have a good game in Atlanta, and sacks are overrated. But five games in a row without one is glaring for the man who once looked like a lock to break Michael Strahan's all-time single season record.
3. The Hall of Fame class of 2013. As unpredictable a year as there's been in a while, because there is not one sure thing on the 15-man list of modern-era finalists. Of the new guys, I sense Larry Allen is the strongest candidate. Of the returning candidates, Charles Haley. But I'm surprised by the process and the outcome every year. If I had to pick five logical enshrinees, I'd probably go Haley, Allen, Jonathan Ogden, Bill Parcells and Cris Carter.
4. Art Modell, Eddie DeBartolo. The Ravens and Niners being in the game, I keep hearing how nice it would be to see one or both get in. I can't speak for the other 45 voters, but if there were 100 factors, pro and con, on the cases of Modell and DeBartolo, the fact that the teams they once owned are in the Super Bowl would be 108. Of the two men, I sense more sentiment for DeBartolo.
5. Don't forget the senior candidates. This year, Green Bay linebacker Dave Robinson and Houston defensive tackle Curley Culp are the nominees. The senior candidates are discussed in the voting room first, and then voted on yes or no. If either gets 80 percent of the vote from the 46 voters, he's in. Obviously, then, it's easier to get in as a Senior nominee than in the modern-era process, in which 15 candidates are winnowed down to five.