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Ray Lewis’ “last ride,” Joe Flacco’s play, past history among reasons to like Ravens’ chances in New Orleans
Super Bowl XLVII is set for Sunday, Feb. 3 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, La. While the majority of the focus has been on the matchup up between the sons of Jack Harbaugh, this Har-Bowl (or Super Baugh, if you prefer) will be decided on the field by the teams that are led by John and Jim, the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers.
Here are five reasons why John Harbaugh’s Ravens will leave New Orleans with the Lombardi Trophy in tow:
1. Ray Lewis’ Storybook Ending
Even Hollywood couldn’t have scripted this potential ending to linebacker Ray Lewis’ Hall of Fame career. Already a lock for enshrinement in Canton, many thought Lewis’ career would end prematurely after sustaining a triceps injury back on Oct. 14. The fact that Lewis was even able to return for the playoffs for one “last ride” is enough of a story in itself, but now that he finds himself with the opportunity to go out on top, as a world champion? Now that’s magical.
The Ravens have rallied around their emotional leader to get to New Orleans, but it’s not like the 17-year veteran hasn’t done his part as well. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year leads all postseason participating with 44 tackles in three games so far, including 25 solo stops. His presence and passion has re-charged a Ravens’ defense that has been able to rise to the occasion during these playoffs. This Ravens team wants nothing more than to send No. 52 off into the sunset with a second Super Bowl ring, just as Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway did back in 1999 in Super Bowl XXXIII.
And Lewis isn’t the only Raven who has waited a long time for this opportunity either. Ed Reed, the ball-hawking safety who took home Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2004, is finally getting his chance on the game’s biggest stage after 11 seasons, as is center Matt Birk, who has started 187 regular-season games in his 14-year career with the Ravens and Vikings.
2. Flacco Playing Like an Extra-Ordinary Joe
As good as Baltimore’s defense has been this postseason, the Ravens would not be in Super Bowl XLVII if not for the performance of quarterback Joe Flacco. Criticized by both pundits and fans alike, Flacco has made considerable progress in quieting down some of the doubters, and it couldn’t come at a better time in his career.
While he has never put up regular-season statistics on par with the likes of a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, or what Andrew Luck did in his first pro season, Flacco has proven he can get the job done when it matters most. The first quarterback in NFL history to win at least one postseason game in each of his first five seasons, Flacco has led the Ravens to the franchise’s second-ever Super Bowl appearance by out-performing Brady, Manning and Luck on the field. This postseason, Flacco has thrown for 853 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions, good enough for a 114.7 passer rating, in leading his Ravens to wins over the Colts, Broncos and Patriots. The latter two victories came on the road, which is also the case for six of his eight career postseason wins.
Flacco is clearly playing the best football of his career, which may not only result in a coveted world championship, but also will more than likely allow him to cash in off the field as well. Flacco is a free agent after the season, and while his next contract numbers probably won’t approach the totals of a Manning, Brady or Drew Brees, there is little doubt he is in for a rather sizable raise. Life is really good for a certain 28-year-old quarterback out of Delaware right now.
3. Ravens’ Defense Soaring at Right Time
Among the top 10 defenses in the NFL in both yards and points allowed from 2008-11, the Ravens took a step backwards during the regular season, finishing tied for 12th in scoring defense (21.5 ppg) and 17th in total defense (350.9 ypg). Some of this can be attributed to injuries, as the team lost All-Pro cornerback Lardarius Webb for the season back in Week 6, while linebackers Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis each missed at least half the regular season.
This defense has turned things around in the playoffs, however, especially as it relates to the red zone and tightening things up in the second half. Even though Indianapolis had 25 first downs and 419 yards of total offense against Baltimore in the Wild Card round, the Colts were 0-for-3 in the red-zone, only managing three field goals in a 24-9 loss.
The following game in Denver, the Ravens forced Peyton Manning into three turnovers, including the key interception that led to the game-winning field goal, and held his offense to just three touchdowns (two touchdowns were on special teams). The double overtime victory was Denver’s second loss at home all season and their first loss in 11 games.
The Ravens followed up that huge road victory with an even bigger one, shutting down Tom Brady and the Patriots and shutting the home team out completely in the second half of the AFC Championship game. The Ravens turned the Patriots away on three of their four trips in the red zone, while forcing the home team into three miscues, including two picks of Brady.
4. Special Teams Could Take Flight in Superdome
The Ravens led the NFL in kickoff return average (27.3 ypr), thanks in large part of the efforts of All-Pro kick returner Jacoby Jones. Jones averaged 30.7 yards per kickoff return, taking two kicks back for touchdowns, while also returning a punt for a score too. The 49ers gave up the second-most yards (26.9) per kickoff return during the regular season, so this could potentially be an area the Ravens can take advantage of.
While Ravens punter Sam Koch has a big leg and can use it to pin opponents inside the 20, he is not on the same level as the 49ers’ Andy Lee, who took home first team All-Pro honors this season for the third time in his career. Kicker, however, is a completely different story, as the Ravens have a clear edge there right now, despite the fact that Justin Tucker is just a rookie.
Tucker made 30-of-33 field goal attempts during the regular season, including all four from beyond 50 yards, and has yet to miss a kick in the postseason (2-of-2 FGs, 12-for-12 PATs). Contrast that to his counterpart David Akers, whose 69 percent success rate on field goals during the regular season was second-lowest in the league, and whose struggles continued with a missed 38-yarder against Atlanta in last Sunday’s NFC Championship game.
Fortunately for Akers and the 49ers, that missed kick didn’t cost them the win over the Falcons, but the stakes and pressure will be even higher come Feb. 3. While Akers’ own confidence has already been called into question, what about his coach’s confidence in his kicker. Does Jim Harbaugh even give Akers a shot at a long field goal, say beyond 40 yards, should a 49ers drive stall? That’s not something that John Harbaugh has to worry about right now with Tucker, at least not until the game has started.
5. The Ravens Have Been Down This Road Before
The Ravens entered the playoffs as the fourth seed in the AFC, the same position they were in following the 2000 season when they would go on to defeat the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. That season, the Ravens defeated the No. 5-seeded team (Denver) at home, followed by road wins over the No. 1 (Tennessee) and 2 (Oakland) teams, and finished the job by taking out the NFC’s top seed, the Giants, in Tampa, Fla.
This season, the Ravens got to New Orleans by beating the No. 5-seed Colts at home, followed by victories over No. 1 Denver and No. 2 New England on the road. All that stands between them and a second Lombardi Trophy for the franchise is NFC Champion San Francisco, who was the No. 2 seed on its side of the bracket.
For what it’s worth, since the Ravens defeated the higher-seeded Giants back in Super Bowl XXXV, the lower-seeded teams are 9-2 in the big game. This record could be 10-2 depending on how you view Super Bowl XLIV, when Indianapolis and New Orleans, the top seeds from each conference, met. The Colts won more games in the regular season than the Saints did, although it was the Saints winning the one that counted most, the last one, 31-17 in Miami, Fla.
That said the past two Super Bowl champions were seeded lower than their opponent, Green Bay (sixth) over Pittsburgh (second) in Super Bowl XLV, and the New York Giants (fourth) over New England (first) last year.