Hello and welcome to the biggest spectacle of professional sports in the United States. Since the Superbowl generally attracts more casual fans of the game, I figured it might be nice to provide a quick primer on the structure of the NFL, the playoff system, and how we arrived at today's game.
The NFL is divided into two conferences, the AFC and the NFC. These are representative of the original National Football League and American Football League. The two leagues began Superbowl competition following the 1967 season, and after the 1969 season which culminated in the New York Jets' victory over the Baltimore Colts in Superbowl III, the two leagues formally merged. The NFC contained most of the former NFL teams, and the AFC contained the former AFL teams plus three from the former NFL, the Baltimore Colts, the Cleveland Browns, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, to balance the conferences.
After starting with 26 teams, the league expanded a few times over the years, and now consists of 32 teams. Also, several teams have changed cities, and the structure within the conferences has been reshuffled a number of times. With the present structure, there are four divisions within each conference with four teams each. They each play 16 games in the regular season, 2 each against the other three teams in their division, and then one each against 10 other teams. After the season is over, there are 6 teams from each division which qualify for the playoffs. The four winners of the divisions are joined by the two teams with the next best overall records. There are a variety of rules in place to break ties.
The playoffs then start with wild card weekend in which the two division champions having the best records in each conference get a bye - meaning they don't need to play that weekend. The 6th place team plays the 3rd best division champ, and the 5th best team plays the 4th division champ. The following weekend the winners of those games play the top two teams. The winning team that was positioned lower in the rankings plays the top team. The following weekend, the winners of these games play for their conference championships, and the winners of those games play in the Superbowl. Simple, right? So after 256 regular season games and 10 playoff games we are now down to just two teams, the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers in the 267th, and final, game of the season.
Given how much has been written about this game over the past couple of weeks, it's hard to come up with much to add. Both teams match up well with each other and it should be a good, hard fought game. I've seen partisans on each side claiming it will be a blowout, but that seems somewhat unlikely. I have been a long-time Ravens fan and have my own opinions about the game, but do my best to look past my biases to see things with clarity. I was fairly confident that the underdog, (+8.5) Ravens would beat the Patriots for the championship. I was also more than just hopeful that they would beat the heavily favored, (-9), Broncos as I saw Peyton Manning as not so invincible in cold weather in the playoffs.
Against the 49ers I'm just not sure what to think. Kaepernick has been a force to be reckoned with for sure. But the question I keep running into is, if the novelty of the pistol formation and read option offense is solved, do Kaepernick and the 49ers offense have enough raw football talent, skill, and knowledge to continue to perform well enough to win? I know that the Ravens offense has the players to be able to put points on the board. There is nothing exotic about what they are doing, they just execute well and have been unstoppable in the playoffs. The offensive line has been giving Flacco plenty of time to do his reads and find guys open downfield. This wasn't always the case this year, and much of Flacco's so-called "inconsistency" can be directly related to the play of his O-line.
The challenge for the Ravens defense is to find a way to keep Kaepernick from beating them with his running, while still keeping enough players in coverage to prevent him from beating them with his arm. I suspect they will approach him similar to how they approached Brady - Only rush 3 guys and focus on sticking to their assignments. They need to be smart about positioning and avoid over pursuit in the backfield.
The challenge for the 49ers defense is to cover the entire field every play. Joe Flacco can throw the ball 60 yards in the air with reasonable accuracy, and Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones have the speed to blow past defenders. They are a potential threat to put 6 points on the board every play. But if the 49ers defensive backs leave too big a cushion then they get beat in the intermediate game and these same speedsters rack up their yards-after-catch. If they play their safeties deep to stop the long ball they give up some of their coverage in the middle of the field. There are also Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce, and Vontae Leach to consider. They are each powerful runners, and both Leach and Rice are also receiving threats out of the backfield. Leach also pretty much owned Patrick Willis when they played last year, blowing over him to free Ray Rice past the line of scrimmage.
There are also a couple of wild cards to consider. Turnovers can turn a game around, as can kick returns. Both teams have dangerous return men in LaMichael James for the 49ers, and Jacoby Jones for the Ravens. Both teams had best keep this in mind or someone may be burnt in a flash. Also, local note, both teams have former members of the Oregon Ducks. The 49ers have LaMichael James, and the Ravens have Haloti Ngata and Ed Dickson on their 53 man roster and Dennis Dixon on their practice squad.
So I guess the bottom line is, as it often is in football, whichever team wins the battle of the linemen wins. Both teams are somewhat battered and bruised by this point in the season. My wish is for a good, clean, hard-hitting, well-officiated game in which there are no significant injuries and the team that plays the best wins - whichever team that is. The point spread on this game opened at 5 and has dropped to somewhere between 3 and 4 depending on which source you check. The Over / Under is 47. The 49ers have beaten the spread by an average of 6 points per game in the playoffs, while the Ravens have beaten the spread by an average of 14 points per game. Something's got to give ...
My prediction as stated elsewhere, Ravens 34-20. I think they'll solve the pistol. But then, I did say I was biased for the Ravens. I've been a fan of Baltimore sports teams since 1965.
Special note regarding Ray Lewis - yes, there is a lot of hype about Ray Lewis' retirement, and the media has been saturated with coverage of him. Yes, Ray was involved in a street fight after the Superbowl in Atlanta 13 years ago in which 2 men died. I was not there, neither were you. There are various stories about what may or may not have happened during that incident. Unless you have been gifted by The Almighty with revealed knowledge regarding this incident, and are 100% certain that you possess truth, please leave discussion of this topic out of the comments here. Seriously. The purpose of this diary is to liveblog the Superbowl, not to discuss the merits of a 13 year old murder case.