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Pigskin Pundit: Conference Post-Mortem and Superbowl Pick

by Clash Daily’s Pigskin Pundit

400px-Sam_Koch_and_John_HarbaughWith a degree of regret, I report that I was 100% correct this week.  We are left with the spectacle of a HarBowl, which, in deference to each brother, should be a very good game.  Both coaches are due the respect of their accomplishments, and this unique, historic matchup will offer drama and interest even to non-football fans.  More on the big game later.  Let’s take a quick look at how they got there.

Ravens vs. Patriots:
True to my prognostication, Baltimore came loaded for bear.  They did what they do best, keeping the score close with stifling defense and hanging around until their opportunities opened up.  It was a perfectly executed plan start to finish, and I give high praise and credit to John Harbaugh for ALWAYS having his teams prepped and focused.  When Offensive Coordinator Jim Caldwell finally took his foot off the brake pedal and turned Joe Flacco loose, Flacco stepped up big.  The Patriot loss of cornerback Talib early on to a hamstring injury opened up many opportunities for Flacco, who used the blustery weather to his advantage going both directions down the field. 

The Patriots, on the other hand, played mediocre.  Brady wasn’t as sharp as usual, especially evident in the running slide he took when a first down was within his grasp, and then blowing a touchdown opportunity through clock mismanagement at the end of the half.  With sixteen seconds left, he failed to take a snap and spike the ball, or even get his team to the line and ready as the clock wound down.  That much time would have allowed two pass attempts at the end zone and still left enough time for a field goal. 

Instead, the Patriots blew the opportunity and in kicking the measly field goal sent a clear message to the Ravens that they were there for the taking.  Their red zone play Sunday was horrible.  The defense interspersed moments of dominance with lengthy periods of average play.  Bottom line is that the Patriots got substantially outplayed in their own building.  Period.

As a Patriots fan, I have but one sour grape to pick from yesterday’s loss.  Getting back to Brady’s slide, it was clearly an unsportsmanlike act.  To kick out at the inside of Ed Reed’s knee was inexcusable, and I certainly understand and agree with the Ravens’ collective umbrage at that play.  Having said that, I find thug safety Bernard Pollard’s comments to be contemptible in the extreme. 

For Pollard, the most cheap-shot low tackler in the entire NFL to comment on Brady was the apex of hypocrisy.  It was the equivalent of a criminal moralizing about the conduct of honest citizens.  Even commentator Phil Simms drew attention to Pollard’s appalling history with the Patriots, including video footage of then Kansas City Chief Pollard committing chop tackles on the knees of Brady (lost for the 2008 season), Wes Welker in 2009 when Pollard was hacking people for Houston (lost for season and most of following year), and roll-tackling the back of Gronkowski’s legs as a Raven assassin (out for several weeks).  In Brady’s and Welker’s cases, those were career-threatening injuries as both needed major knee reconstruction. 

Then there was Pollard’s helmet-spearing tackle Sunday that knocked Stevan Ridley unconscious, causing a crucial fumble.  It was a high-speed play the refs missed, and the commentators refrained from calling it what it was since the referees indicated no foul.  But the impact of those two helmets coming together could be heard in the cheap seats at Gillette Stadium, an automatic penalty under the new rules.  It was yet another cheap shot by a career cheap shot artist. When Ridley regained consciousness, he was unable to return to the game.

On Brady, Pollard intoned with nauseating self-righteousness in a post-game interview, “You’ve got to keep the legs down. We all know and understand what’s going on there.  And as a quarterback, when you go to slide, we’re taught . . . we can’t do anything. When you come sliding, and your leg is up in the air trying to kick somebody, that’s bull crap.”

So are your comments, Bernard.  Here’s one fan of the game hoping you get what’s coming to you.

49ers vs. Falcons:
The Falcons played their usual solid game, establishing dominance in the first half against a flaccid San Francisco defense. The problem for the Falcons is that they let teams back into the game in the second half, and while they narrowly escaped the clutches of the Seahawks’ late surge last week, they could not hold off the 49ers yesterday.  Mike Smith will have to examine why his very good team tends to wilt as the clock approaches the 60-minute mark, and he’ll have all winter and spring to do so. 

Colin Kaepernick continued to show great versatility, playing as a pocket quarterback yesterday and leaving the ground yardage to the guys paid to go get it.  Kaepernick has become symbolic of his team, which always seems to find a way to defeat other teams.  If one aspect of their game isn’t working, another emerges to respond to the situation.  As NFL writer Gregg Rosenthal said this week, “This is a 49ers squad that doesn’t flinch.  If you stop one part of their team, another will step up. They can win games in so many different ways.”

Defense.gov_photo_essay_120726-D-VO565-016If this is indicative of Jim Harbaugh’s coaching style, the City by the Bay is in for a long run of successes.  On a side note, there’s no way Alex Smith will be wearing a 49ers uniform next year, what with his job gone in San Francisco and too many teams needing a seasoned quality signal-caller.  The sad irony is that in dealing him to another team, the 49ers are certain to score at least a high first round draft pick to further strengthen their potent roster.  Success breeds success.

Ravens vs. 49Ers:
While Baltimore was lackluster earlier in the season, they have healed and congealed at the right time.  Their defense is still the backbone of the team, and their formerly questionable offense has found new heights in recent weeks.  Flacco seems ready to pierce the glass ceiling of elitism, at least in the big game in February. Whether he maintains play at that level will determine his long-term standing among quarterbacks.  Speaking of pierce, new running threat Bernard Pierce showed some skills in the last two weeks that indicate he was a good draft pick-up.  Ray Rice will be his dependable self, a threat carrying or catching the ball. 

As stated earlier, the 49ers aren’t just a Cinderella team riding a high.  They have been focused on this goal for three seasons, relentlessly drawing closer and closer while eliminating any weaknesses and growing more resilient.  Jim Harbaugh seems capable of putting together a solid game plan for each opponent, and more importantly, modifying that plan as game conditions unfold.  That kind of versatility resonates throughout his team, which is probably why he opted for Kaepernick at quarterback.  
That’s no knock on Alex Smith.  If Kaepernick goes down in the SuperBowl, Smith would have no problem stepping in and performing superbly.

Assessment: the Ravens are well-balanced, well-coached, well-seasoned and confident.  They showed they can play mistake-free football on offense, which Atlanta and New England were unable to do.  The 49ers are equally well-balanced, also boast a very stingy defense, and have a more explosive offense.  

Considering the narrowness of the SuperBowl coaching gene pool, neither team has an edge there.  Both brothers have proven their quality.  Anybody waiting for Kaepernick to get game jitters and make a fatal mistake at this point is waiting for a bus that ain’t coming. 

The Ravens rely on mistake-free football to win.  The 49ers seem capable of atoning for any mistakes they make during the game, to win out.  In a very tight game that either team can win, I give the razor’s edge to … San Francisco.

Thanks to all you readers for a great season!

Image: Source: Sam Koch and John Harbaugh; author: Keith Allison from Baltimore, USA; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Lower Image: San Francisco 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh shakes hands with Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey;; author: D. Myles Cullen; public domain