Five reasons the Ravens will win Super Bowl XLVII
NEW ORLEANS -- One thing is certain about Super Bowl XLVII: After the game has ended and the confetti has rained on the field inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, a Harbaugh will hoist the hardware. Will John Harbaugh, coach of the Ravens, lift the Lombardi Trophy, or will it be his younger sibling, Jim? Their teams are similar. Both have young quarterbacks who are playing lights out right now, physical defenses who could turn the game into a rock 'em-sock 'em contest, and an aching hunger for a championship. It has been 12 years since the Ravens won their only Super Bowl and 18 years since the 49ers were champions.
Here are five reasons the Ravens will win Sunday night.
1. The Baltimore Express has been building up steam for the last five years.
Since 2008, when they hired Harbaugh as their coach and drafted Delaware's Joe Flacco as their quarterback, the Ravens have gone to the playoffs every season. They advanced to three AFC championship games before finally prevailing this year, although they came mighty close a year ago. If Lee Evans had not been stripped of a touchdown pass in the end zone and Billy Cundiff hadn't missed a subsequent 32-yard field goal that would have sent the game into overtime, the Ravens might have beaten the Patriots.
Under the direction of general manager Ozzie Newsome, Baltimore has done a great job of assembling a championship roster. In addition to Flacco, the last five Ravens drafts have mined such key pieces as running back Ray Rice ('08); offensive tackle Michael Oher and pass rusher Paul Kruger ('09); tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta ('10); wide receiver Torrey Smith ('11) and offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele ('12). Newsome supplemented that talent by bringing in center Matt Birk, fullback Vonta Leach, safety Bernard Pollard and kicker Justin Tucker in free agency, and trading for wide receiver Anquan Boldin.
Those younger players have reinvigorated an already seasoned talent base of veterans such as linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and guard Marshall Yanda.
2. Joe Flacco suddenly has found his inner Tom Brady.
The former Blue Hen has been playing like a rooster with a thorn in his comb lately. Oft-criticized and evaluated as a player not worthy to be compared to the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks, the 6-foot-6 Flacco has stood tall in the postseason and changed a lot of perceptions about him.
There was his Mile High rainbow -- a 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones that tied the score near the end of regulation in a divisional game against the Broncos, which the Ravens won in double overtime. Then, in an AFC Championship Game renewal against New England, Flacco took over in the second half and threw for touchdowns on three consecutive series, leading Baltimore to a 28-13 win. To outplay Peyton Manning and Brady in back-to-back playoff games seemed improbable, but Flacco got it done. During the Ravens' postseason run, he has completed 51 of 93 passes for 853 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions for a 114.7 rating.
3. Bold in-season changes made the Ravens better.
When the offense began to flounder late in the regular season, Harbaugh didn't hesitate to make a tough decision. He fired Cam Cameron, his friend and Baltimore's offensive coordinator since 2008, after a Week 14 loss to Washington and promoted quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell to the position. The former head coach of the Colts, Caldwell has resuscitated the offense. He went back to emphasizing the ground game and giving Rice more rushing touches (the team has averaged 10 more running plays per game). As a result, the Ravens have rushed for an average of 155.3 yards in the last six games, compared to 108.8 before.
When left guard Jah Reid suffered a dislocated toe in the final regular season game, Caldwell reshuffled the line. Right tackle Osemele moved to left guard, left tackle Oher switched to right tackle, Yanda came back from injury late in the season, replacing Bobbie Williams at right guard, and Bryant McKinnie, a reserve during the regular season, was plugged in at left tackle (center Matt Birk remained in place). Such 11th-hour line changes are rare, but the Ravens have made it work. In three playoff games, Flacco has been sacked only four times in 99 dropbacks, or once for every 24.8 times -- compared to once for every 16.3 times in the regular season.
4. Ray's last ride has lifted the Ravens to new heights.
Four days before the Ravens' opening playoff game against Indianapolis, Ray Lewis announced that he would retire after this season. The team's inspirational leader for 17 years, Lewis also returned to the playing field -- wearing a scary-looking facemask, no less -- after missing the last 10 games of the regular season because of a torn triceps. There are no barometers that can measure Lewis' emotional impact on the team (just know that it is big), and the defense has played better since his return. Who wants to be the player who disappoints Ray Lewis?
You can despise Lewis for his alleged involvement in the murder of two men outside an Atlanta night club after Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000 (Lewis eventually pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice). You can be skeptical of his denials that he used a banned substance to help him recover from his triceps injury, as was disclosed in a Sports Illustrated story this week. But there's no denying that Lewis is the Ravens' leader on and off the field, and his teammates are going to do all they can to give him a winning send-off in his final game.
5. If the game comes down to a last-second field goal attempt, the Ravens have the man for the job.
Free-agent rookie kicker Justin Tucker has been money since he beat out Cundiff in training camp. The former University of Texas star converted 30 of 33 field goal attempts during the regular season, including game-winning kicks against New England (as time expired) and San Diego (in overtime). He was 4 of 4 beyond 50 yards, connecting from 51, 51, 54 and 56 yards. Tucker's biggest moment (at least so far) came 1:42 into the second overtime of the Denver playoff game, when he nailed a 47-yarder for the victory.
Tucker's counterpart in this game, San Francisco veteran kicker David Akers, tied an NFL record with a 63-yard field goal in the season opener against Green Bay. But he has mostly struggled this season. He missed 13 of 42 field goal attempts in the regular season, and his 38-yard attempt in the NFC championship game against Atlanta clanked off the left upright.