Elite or not, Flacco now stands alone; more Snaps
NEW ORLEANS -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a most eventful and entertaining Super Bowl XLVII in the Superdome, a 34-31 Baltimore victory over San Francisco in the kind of knock-down, drag-out battle that brothers always seem to wage...
• The elite quarterback debate often sounds silly. But now, so too does the notion that Joe Flacco doesn't belong in the discussion. Baltimore's fifth-year quarterback just went all Eli Manning on us. First he insisted he was among the game's elite, and then he went out and showed us.
With Flacco's three first-half touchdown passes giving the Ravens a lead they could never quite relinquish, Baltimore is the champion of the NFL for the first time in 12 years. But unlike those 2000 Ravens, it wasn't a record-breaking defense that led them to the pinnacle of the league. It was their often-doubted, and occasionally maligned quarterback who led them there. Flacco threw a ridiculous and record-tying 11 touchdowns in Baltimore's four-game playoff run, with nary an interception. Only the 49ers' Joe Montana and the Rams' Kurt Warner had that many scoring passes in the playoffs.
Along the way he outplayed rookie phenom Andrew Luck, Hall of Famers-to-be Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, and on Sunday night, he was better than one of the most exciting and dynamic young quarterback talents in recent years: San Francisco's multi-faceted Colin Kaepernick.
Flacco, voted the game's MVP, will never look flashy. But his new piece of jewelry will. And the statistics he hung up playing on the biggest stage of his career will always sparkle: 22 of 33 for 287 yards, with those three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 124.2 passer rating. Flacco chucked scoring passes to three Ravens receivers -- Anquan Boldin, Jacoby Jones and Dennis Pitta -- and played with a presence and poise that seemed to sustain his teammates, even in the midst of San Francisco's furious second-half rally.
"I just think it's fitting that we won that way,'' Flacco said of Baltimore's nail-biting victory, which wasn't secured until the Ravens made a goal line stand inside the final two minutes. "That's just the way our games seem to go. We don't make it easy. But that's the way the city of Baltimore is, and that's the way we are.''
This was ostensibly a week about saying goodbye to Ray Lewis, the man who has been the face of this franchise for most of his 17 seasons in Baltimore. But in reality, Lewis' farewell was never the only story unfolding for the Ravens this postseason. Flacco stepping up and becoming the full-fledged franchise quarterback and team leader he was drafted to be in 2008's first round was the chapter that should foretell Baltimore's future.
Flacco has arrived. And he won't be unappreciated or put in the position of defending his own elite status after this remarkable playoff run. The player who always seemed capable of disappearing at times during games or at some point in the season showed up in dramatic fashion against the 49ers. In the first half, when Baltimore raced to a 21-6 advantage, Flacco threw all three of his touchdown passes and went a cool 13 of 20 for 192 yards, with a sizzling 135.8 rating.
Like Eli Manning before him, Flacco in the past month forced us to view him differently, and take him at his word when he proclaimed himself worthy of being mentioned in the same category as the Mannings, Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. The Ravens might have lost four of their last five regular season games, but Flacco refused to let them wilt in the playoffs, carrying the burden for a team that was an underdog in all but its first-round home playoff opener against the upstart Colts.
Of this there can be no doubt: Flacco and the Ravens are now a long-term marriage, and an ultra-successful one at that. He's eligible for free agency this spring, but he'll never get there. Baltimore will either strike a lucrative new deal with him, or slap the well-paying one-year franchise tag on him and keep negotiating toward a long-term contract. Either way, he's going nowhere. Nor does he want to. Baltimore and its low-key style fit Flacco like a glove, and he knows it.
Baltimore is a blue-collar city that now loves its blue-collar quarterback. Pick your own word(s): elite, premier or top-notch. Flacco and the Ravens are champions. Whether or not he's a top-five passer doesn't seem to be much of a debate about now. This year, he's the last quarterback standing. And that makes him No. 1.
• The 49ers weren't the only ones in the Superdome who didn't look ready for the game's grandest stage for a good bit of the night. Referee Jerome Boger and his crew weren't in championship form either. I suppose the debate has to start with the dubious non-call on the game-deciding play: That 4th-and-5 incompletion by San Francisco on the Ravens 5 with 1:46 remaining, on which receiver Michael Crabtree appeared to be interfered with and/or held by Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith. There was an awful lot of contact on the play, and it seemed Smith had a piece of Crabtree's jersey at one point.
It's a shame the game turned on that play, but in reality the 49ers might be champions tonight if a flag had been thrown on Smith.
"There's no question in my mind that there was a pass interference and then a hold on Crabtree on the last one,'' losing head coach Jim Harbaugh said, while crediting Baltimore for making a lot of plays in the game.
Boger and Co. also had a glaringly bad sequence in the first half. Baltimore cornerback Cary Williams gave an official a two-handed shove in the melee that broke out after Ed Reed's interception, and stayed in the game, without even drawing a penalty. Are you serious?
That's taking the idea of swallowing your whistle to a whole new level. Williams has to be ejected there, even in the first half of a Super Bowl. This is not a judgment call. You put your hands on a ref, and you're supposed to be gone. No ifs, ands or buts. But Boger, who also didn't chuck Cam Newton from a regular season game after the Carolina quarterback came in contact with him, didn't see it that way.
As the rule book reads, it's an automatic ejection. But not on Sunday. In the Superdome. In the Super Bowl.
• It was a bit surreal being in the Superdome when the lights went halfway out early in the third quarter. Your first thought was, "Guess that Beyonce halftime show was a little too sizzling.'' But then it started to look like a scene out of the football movie Any Given Sunday, with the players on the field in half shadow, half light.
It's the second embarrassing episode for the NFL in three Super Bowls, after the Dallas seating debacle of two years ago. The NFL looked minor league having to wait out a 34-minute power outage while its premier game was supposedly captivating the nation. And the Superdome looked worse, given that it has undergone extensive renovations since Katrina, most of which were aimed at again getting back in the league's Super Bowl rotation.
• Jim Harbaugh gets labeled as the more hot-headed head coach in the family, but I think we all saw John Harbaugh's temper flare in significant fashion during the game's 34-minute electrical outage. Not sure what set Harbaugh off, but he looked to be voicing his displeasure at a league official about something adversely affecting his team during the unusual delay.
Steady, John. Your club was up 28-6 at the time. Whatever beef you had, things must have felt far worse for Jim and his 49ers while the lights were out.
• The more you examine the start of the Harbaugh era in both Baltimore and San Francisco, the more remarkable their record of coaching success grows. In their combined seven seasons (five years with the Ravens for John, two years with the 49ers for Jim), the brothers Harbaugh have gone:
-- Seven for seven in terms of playoff berths, with a combined postseason record of 12-6.
-- Seven for seven in making a trip to the NFL's final eight, including byes.
-- Five of seven in possible trips to the conference title game, meaning a berth in the league's final four.
-- And now their historic joint Super Bowl appearance, with John winning the family's first ring.
They may not be able to keep up their streak of at least a playoff win every season going indefinitely, but you get the feeling we're going to be seeing plenty of Harbaugh coaching in the NFL playoffs for years to come.
• For a guy who talks endlessly about his love of competition, Randy Moss didn't exactly sell out for San Francisco. Moss looked disinterested in the first half against Baltimore, failing to even jump or put his arms up in pursuit of a Kaepernick pass that sailed high and wound up being intercepted by Ravens safety Ed Reed in the second half.
And Moss repeatedly refused to come back to the ball when his defender was on his back, which led to a couple near interceptions by Baltimore. Moss doesn't scare anyone any more with his deep speed, and pass defenders seem to know they can keep him in front of them and then close on the ball. Moss may be the self-proclaimed greatest receiver of all time, but he didn't play like one of the game's greats against Baltimore. He played like a guy who can't make it happen against quality competition any more.
• Flacco, of course, isn't the only Raven who had a very lucrative playoff run. On defense, Baltimore outside linebacker Paul Kruger struck gold, given that he's eligible for free agency just after racking up 4.5 sacks in the Ravens' four-game postseason. His third-down 10-yard sack of Kaepernick in the first quarter Sunday ended a promising 49ers drive that had reached Baltimore's 8-yard line, and forced San Francisco to attempt a 36-yard field goal for a 7-3 deficit.
If the Ravens can somehow get Flacco's new contract done without using the franchise tag on him, they could slap the franchise designation on Kruger. Especially with Baltimore losing middle linebacker Ray Lewis to retirement and quite possibly safety Ed Reed to free agency.
• Once again, the Super Bowl delivered a dramatic and close game, even though it didn't look likely after the opening kickoff of the second half. I'm starting to forget what a Super blowout even looks like. The last double-digit margin of victory was New Orleans' 31-17 win over Indianapolis three years ago, but that score was deceiving because it was a seven-point game late until Peyton Manning threw a pick-6 to Saints cornerback Tracy Porter.
The last game that was truly non-competitive came 10 years ago, when Tampa Bay trounced Oakland 48-21 in San Diego.
• The most incredible stat I heard all day: Kaepernick's second-quarter interception to Reed was the first pick thrown by a 49ers quarterback in San Francisco Super Bowl history. And it took almost five and a half games to log that INT. Makes you appreciate Joe Montana and Steve Young all the more.
• Super Bowl XLVII was won by the team with fewer wins in the regular season. The fourth-seeded Ravens went 10-6 this season, while No. 2 seeded San Francisco was 11-4-1.
That form has almost perfectly held since the 2005 season, when the Steelers beat the Seahawks in Detroit. Only in 2008 did it not, when Pittsburgh (12-4) edged Arizona (9-7) in Tampa.
In six of the past eight years, a No. 4, No. 5, or No. 6 seed has made the Super Bowl, and with the Ravens' win, those six teams are 5-1 in the big game, uspetting a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in all five of the victories.
• It didn't wind up hurting Baltimore, but you had to wonder what John Harbaugh, the former longtime Eagles special teams coach, was thinking when he approved that fake field goal on 4th-and-9, when the Ravens were in range for a 32-yard Justin Tucker field goal try and a 17-3 second-quarter lead.
There's a time to be daring and a time to play it safe and take the points. Against an offense as explosive as San Francisco's, it was obviously tempting to go for the touchdown and a 21-3 lead. But in this case, it wasn't worth the risk of giving the 49ers new life and a way to get back into the game quickly.
• This performance will probably cool off Kaepernick Fever by a few degrees, but it is worth noting that the second-year pro was only making his 10th career start on Sunday. There will better days ahead for No. 7, and maybe the next time he won't look like the shaky, nervous first-time Super Bowl starter that he was throughout the first half against Baltimore.
For the first time this season, Kaepernick failed to lead a touchdown on a possession after the threw an interception. The pick he threw to Reed in the second quarter was followed up by a three-and-out series.
• Things that jumped out at you during Super Bowl XLVII:
-- For a while there, Ray Lewis could have sued 49ers tight end Vernon Davis for mental and physical abuse. San Francisco went right at the soon-to-be-retired Ravens middle linebacker in the first half, and it wasn't pretty for No. 52. He couldn't keep up with Davis in coverage, and he was consistently getting blocked on running plays.
Lewis hasn't been in Hall of Fame form on more than one occasion this season, but he looked like a tired and far too immobile 17-year veteran for much of Sunday night.
-- That was a absolute killer of a fumble, LaMichael James. The 49ers rookie running back took all the momentum away from his team when he dropped the ball at the Ravens 25 yard line, with San Francisco trailing 7-3. The game went the other direction, away from the 49ers, after James' miscue.
-- All you can do is marvel at Reed's ability to ball hawk. His second-quarter interception was the ninth of his career in the playoffs, tying a league postseason record. Kaepernick sailed the ball right to Reed, but somehow he always seems to be in position to take advantage of his opponent's mistakes.
-- The Ravens simply didn't miss during the playoffs when they got into the red zone. They scored on their final 12 red-zone drives of their season. Flacco not making mistakes in the game's scoring zone is how Baltimore earned its second ring.