It’s that time of year again. We will all get together this Sunday with friends and family to watch the newest and most entertaining commercials for a essentially the entire day. Don’t forget, the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens will toss the ball around as well in between the commercial action. You ready?
AccuScore simulations project this game to be crazy close. After 10,000 simulations, both teams end with an average of 22 points and 1.4 turnovers. While SF is the betting favorite in Vegas (-3.5), Baltimore is the slight 51.4 percent favorite based on the simulations. The Ravens have a 61.2 percent chance of covering the +3.5 spread. There’s a 59 percent chance the total score stays under 47. The total has gone under in four of Baltimore’s last five games, and in four of their last six games against San Francisco. SF is 2-4 against the spread in their last six games against Baltimore.
To really break things down from Baltimore’s point of view, there are a few matchups to focus on: quarterback Joe Flacco vs SF defense, Baltimore defense vs quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and the Baltimore D vs wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
Flacco vs SF
After a sub-par regular season, Flacco has been remarkable in the playoffs, leading all quarterbacks in touchdowns, yardage, and QB rating. Best of all, he has zero interceptions. He’s set to face a Niner defense that has allowed the fewest points (15.7) and second-fewest yards (301.3) on a per-game basis since Vic Tangio took over as defensive coordinator in 2011. Was Flacco possibly right in proclaiming himself as the best QB in the league?
Okay, so we won’t take it that far. But he has been playing quite well. Not only does his post-season TD to INT ratio impress critics (8:0), but the advanced stats also tell a similar story. His total QBR is up to 77.5 in the playoffs, good for third best; most telling though is his QBR in the past never went over 41.9 and was even as low as 17.6.
After watching Atlanta’s Matt Ryan connect on some big plays vs SF (SF defense allowed 396 passing yards to ATL), expect something similar from Flacco. Deep routes have continued to be an issue for the SF defense in the playoffs. In the regular season, the 49ers allowed just 36.3 percent of passes traveling more than 15 yards to be completed; in the post-season, that percentage is up to 66.7. In the regular season, they picked off six such passes and allowed just two TDs; in the playoffs so far, they’ve allowed three TDs and picked it off just once.
The key for Flacco will be to try and stay patient. He has been this impressive not because he’s trying to throw it deep any chance he gets, but rather because he’s waiting for one-on-one matchups and exploiting them. He hasn’t thrown an interception as a result since Dec. 16 against Denver.
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin was huge in the team’s win over the New England Patriots, receiving for 60 yards and finding the end zone twice. He doesn’t have the same speed as he once did, or the ability to get as much separation, but he continues to find a way to take advantage of one-on-one situations. In three playoff games this season, he’s caught 15 passes for 276 yards and 3 TDs. Wide receiver Torrey Smith will have to challenge San Francisco’s defene as well, both attacking a secondary that has proven itself to be vulnerable.
The numbers indicate that the Niners don’t blitz much, sending five or more pass rushers just 6.9 percent of the time in the last two games. Given what we’ve seen so far, we should expect a safe pocket for Flacco. Baltimore’s offensive line has allowed just four sacks in three playoff games. How often Aldon Smith wins his matchup with left tackle Bryant McKinnie will be very telling. If Smith gets the upper hand in the pass rush battle, the ball gets to Ray Rice, who SF is ready to handle with the likes of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Early success on the ground will be an indicator to how well Flacco’s play-action will work as the game progresses.
Joe Flacco is projected to throw for 267 yards with 1 TD and a QB rating of 87.5. Ray Rice is projected to get 60-61 yards on 17 carries. He’s also projected to receive it 3-4 times for 32 yards. Wide receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin are projected to catch for approximately 70 yards each.
Great read via Grantland on what sets Baltimore needs to run to take advantage of Flacco’s arm.
Baltimore D vs Kaepernick
While there are dozens of matchups we can say will decide this game, none will be as important as 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick vs Baltimore’s defense. Ed Reed and Ray Lewis have been successful their entire careers not just because they’re athletic or possess some sort of super-human strength, but mostly because they have outsmarted the QBs they’ve faced. Their experience and knowledge of the game has led them to correctly predict what the quarterback will do. Can they have the same type of success against Kaepernick?
No team in the NFL has seen anything like Kaepernick. His arm is bigger, stronger and more precise than any QB who runs like him, and he’s much more mobile than any QB with an arm like his.
Kaepernick has completed 136/218 passes for 1,814 yards and 10 TDs (3 INTs). Taking away all numbers, his demeanor during the comeback victory in the NFC Championship Game is more than enough to instill confidence in the 49ers faithful.
Baltimore has to, and I mean HAS to, contain tight end Vernon Davis from kickoff. We know receiver Michael Crabtree is the primary threat in their passing game, but the chemistry that Kaepernick and Davis have established might give Baltimore a migraine. The Ravens linebackers are not known to cover well, a bad sign since Davis caught five passes for 106 yards and a TD vs Atlanta. He could regress a bit and go back to just his blocking responsibilities, but given how much yardage he picks up after the catch, you know Davis is going to make an impact this weekend. Davis is projected to catch it four times for 53 yards.
Before getting into the Crabtree matchup, let’s first look at why Kaepernick is such a nightmare for oppositions. When the Ravens have all the routes covered and nothing down field is open, that’s surprisingly when Kaepernick is the deadliest. Baltimore’s pass rush isn’t anything to be proud of either, recording zero sacks against Tom Brady and the Patriots.
What stood out in the 49ers game against the Falcons was how little Kaepernick ran. He only rushed twice for 21 yards as offensive coordinator Greg Roman changed things up a bit knowing Atlanta had prepped for Kaepernick running a muck. The game was a testament to not only the confidence the coaching staff has in their quarterback, but also to how versatile and mature young Kaepernick already is.
Stopping San Francisco’s pistol offense, a formation that gives Kaepernick a 4-yard snap behind the center with a running back behind him, is a much different monster than containing Manning or Brady, potentially even more difficult.
Baltimore has to keep him inside and in front of their defense; they can’t run with him, so it’ll be a matter of keeping him in front and forcing a turnover into their coverage. The Baltimore defense is projected to tally 2 sacks, and has a high probability of forcing either a fumble or interception. In fact, the simulation data practically guarantees one or the other happening. Unfortunately for Baltimore, SF is projected to have better defensive stats in all categories.
Good read on how Ray Lewis will impact the Baltimore defense this weekend.
Baltimore D vs Crabtree
In the last month, the Ravens have faced a combination of top wide receivers including A.J. Green, Demaryius Thomas, Reggie Wayne, and Wes Welker. While they were able to contain Green and Thomas, both Wayne and Welker topped 100 receiving yards against Baltimore. The Ravens know they can’t let San Francisco’s Michael Crabtree get any sort of space this Sunday.
First and foremost, Baltimore HAS to get Crabtree to the ground the moment he catches it. He’s fourth in the NFL in yards after the catch (543), and averages 6.4 yards after the catch (12th best in the NFL). He’s a big, strong guy who breaks tackles, simple as that.
Baltimore will look for a team effort to slow Crabtree down. The Ravens don’t match up well on individual receivers and will need everyone from corner backs Cary Williams to Corey Graham to Chykie Brown to do their part. Green Bay got into trouble doubling Crabtree and letting Kaepernick run; I expect Baltimore to lay back, let Kaepernick throw into coverage, and force a mistake there. In three games, they’ve picked off Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady a total of five times. Keep an eye out for Williams to spend most of his time on Crabtree; he has two interceptions on Brady and Luck.
Crabtree is projected to receive it 5 times for 69 yards. Against Atlanta, he was targeted seven times, and caught it six times for 57 yards. He did have one fumble.
Game Predition- All signs point to a SF victory, but I’m going to take the Ravens by 3, Baltimore 24 San Francisco 21.