Let’s put this Ravens Super Bowl win in context.
The Ravens are, almost unquestionably, a great football team. They just beat what most people would have suggested to be the league’s three best teams in three consecutive games, with zero of those games played at home. They did it without ever trailing by more than a touchdown, having been in the lead for the entire second half in New England and all night on Sunday in New Orleans. These were not fluke wins; the Ravens were the better team in each of the four contests, and had they lost any of them, it would have been an unfair result with the wrong team advancing. They didn’t enjoy fumble luck or close-game luck or even floodlight luck. They were every bit as brilliant as the confetti implies they were.
Which is why it’s even more important to really put this thing in context. As recently as New Year’s Day and as early as Halloween, you could have argued that the Ravens were a mediocre football team with very little fuss from folks who don’t consider purple to be a base color of their wardrobe. In Week 11, the Ravens could only muster up a three-point win over a Steelers team that had a gimpy Byron Leftwich at quarterback in a game in which their offense — the same one that looked unstoppable in the first half of the freaking Super Bowl — couldn’t even score a single touchdown. The following week, it took a miraculous fourth-and-29 conversion to push the game into overtime and for the Ravens to eventually beat the lowly Chargers in San Diego, in a game in which that same offense scored just one touchdown. A week later, they lost to a Charlie Batch–led Steelers team in Baltimore. They blew an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Redskins in Washington, got embarrassed by the Broncos at home, and after finally showing up with a big win over the Giants, limped into the playoffs with a meaningless loss at Cincinnati.
If you think that tells you that the Ravens1 elevated their game when they needed to, I can’t agree. What it really tells us is that we know way less about teams than we really think we know. Every recent piece of information we had about the Ravens heading into the postseason suggested that they were a floundering team limping in by virtue of a successful start to the season, some lucky bounces, opposing injuries, and strong performance in close games. Baltimore started 6-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, with its only loss to Philadelphia, of all teams, before losing their final three such contests. We had a clear curve for Baltimore’s true level of play, and it was trending further and further downward. And yet, from that point forward, everything we thought we knew about the Ravens was wrong. For every power rankings article you read in November and every set of odds you saw in December, nobody had any idea that the Ravens were capable of putting together a four-game stretch this good. Was “play like the best team in football” really a switch they were waiting to turn on during the playoffs? Or were they capable of this all along and just hadn’t yet exhibited this level of play?
This isn’t a new argument, either, or one of “peaking” at the right time. The Ravens are the 2011 Giants, or the 2007 Giants, or the 2010 Packers. They’re the reminders that you don’t get the full picture of a team and what they can do from a 16-game sample, just as you fail to get the entire story from a 16-game sample in other sports. The only difference is that those other sports get 66 or more games to reveal more about their teams. In football, we get 20 games max.
It’s because we know so little about these teams that it’s so important to try to judge them based upon their level of play as opposed to their win-loss record (and even that’s going to be flawed). Go back to that Ravens-Broncos game three weeks ago. If Rahim Moore hadn’t blown a seemingly simple coverage, Baltimore would’ve been out of the playoffs without anybody giving a second thought to how well they played. They would’ve been the plucky team who beat an overmatched Colts squad in the emotional cauldron of Ray Lewis’s final home game before giving the Broncos a tough matchup and coming up short. The seemingly impending breakup of the veterans on this team would’ve gone off without a hitch, with Lewis retiring and the Ravens moving on from the likes of Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin as rumored.
Even more stark is how different these teams would’ve looked if the 49ers had finished their comeback and won Sunday. Let’s say that the 49ers got off their second-down quarterback counter with Colin Kaepernick without calling a timeout, since it looked like it was about to steam into the end zone, and let’s pretend that the Ravens’ drive to tie/win fell short. Do you know who the Ravens would’ve gotten compared to? The Falcons, the team who blew an enormous lead that seemed to be slipping from their grip for most of the second half. Joe Flacco would’ve drawn comparisons to Matt Ryan for beating up the 49ers defense in the first half before only briefly succeeding in the second half. And Kaepernick? Well, he would’ve been the leader of the new Kardiac Kids, a team that just doesn’t know when to quit, a squad that has led nearly unprecedented comebacks in consecutive games. That line between winning and losing is so ridiculously thin, and yet it becomes the basis for about 98 percent of the discussion surrounding a team.
Of course, just as 16 games isn’t enough to get the total picture of a team, 20 games isn’t a perfect sample. For all we know, the Ravens could really be the league’s seventh-best team if we ran this season one million times. The question the NFL season seeks to answer isn’t who is the league’s best team; it’s who is the league champion. And in answering that question, the Ravens provided us with the latest reminder of one of the few things we actually do know about the modern NFL: As long as you make it to the playoffs, it doesn’t matter how you got there. And once you’re in the playoffs, you can throw just about everything you think you know about a team out the window.
In the playoffs, every story line is ex post facto, with the process graded after the fact by whatever the outcome was. You know the stories. A team with a first-round bye is refreshed and full of energy if they blow out their opponents (often as big favorites at home), but rusty and lost their timing if they lose to their opponents, who don’t have anybody believing in them but themselves. It’s one of the laziest bits of analysis you’ll see about sports.
To extend that further, there are stories about the players in this Super Bowl that totally change by virtue of what happened on that fateful fourth-down call near the Baltimore goal line in the fourth quarter. In many cases, the players weren’t even on the field for the play in question, but it’s still enough to lock in narratives surrounding those guys that may end up defining or redefining their respective careers. Again, in many cases, that’s inaccurate. It’s worth evaluating how those players and their performances look in a vacuum; or, perhaps more interestingly, if the Niners had completed their comeback and pulled out a victory with a touchdown on that spot. A quick go-around:
Ray Rice wouldn’t be the only scapegoat for a Baltimore loss, but he would get plenty of attention for his third-quarter fumble, one that gives him nearly as many fumbles in the playoffs (five) as he’s produced during the regular season (seven). The fumble furthered the San Francisco comeback and set them up for a possible game-tying touchdown opportunity, only for the defense to hold the 49ers to a field goal. Don’t think the Ravens didn’t react to it; there was a reason that Bernard Pierce got a carry on that final possession. If the Ravens had lost, Rice would’ve been lambasted and forced to answer questions about his playoff fumbling habit for the next five years. Since they won, everyone forgets about the fumble and Rice’s fourth-and-29 conversion is used as the manifestation of Baltimore’s never-say-die attitude.
Jacoby Jones is an example of how postseason labels shouldn’t stick around for very long. Last year, Jones was the goat in Houston after fumbling away a punt against these very same Ravens. This year, he was the GOAT in Baltimore’s playoff run; Jones held on to that season-changing touchdown catch against the Broncos to tie the game, and on Sunday, he had a 56-yard touchdown catch and a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.2 If the Ravens had lost, Jones’s heroic effort would’ve been an afterthought amid a crushing loss, but because the Ravens won, Jones’s MVP-caliber playoffs can overshadow his disappointing fumble last season.
Ray Lewis didn’t come up short in his retirement tour, meaning he can ride off into the (Bristol) sunset with his second ring. I suspect his final game will be remembered for his speech afterward; had the Ravens lost, we’d probably be talking about how slow and lumbering Lewis looked in the first half, when the 49ers threw at him repeatedly with crossing patterns from Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis.
Colin Kaepernick would have to change the meaning of “Kaepernicking” from his touchdown celebration to the idea of coming back from any sort of large deficit while making it look easy. Instead, after the 49ers lost, I saw Kaepernick criticized during the postgame shows, which seems bizarre considering that the 49ers were unstoppable for most of the second half (and not too shabby in the first half, either). Yes, he made a bad throw that led to a first-half interception, and he was late on a second throw on the subsequent series that was nearly picked. It’s hard to find a bad throw from him the rest of the way, and I can recall at least one glorious pass up the sideline to an open Vernon Davis that wasn’t caught. Kaepernick played well enough to win. Sometimes, you can play well enough to win and still lose. This was one of those times.
Randy Moss could have been a hero. There were a number of plays in which Moss was open for possibly big plays and Kaepernick either chose a different receiver or wasn’t able to get the ball to him. A scrambling Kaepernick had an open Moss in the back of the end zone in the first quarter, but didn’t see him and instead overthrew Michael Crabtree on a drive that eventually produced a field goal. Later, Moss was open on a deep post on the aforementioned Davis drop, but Kaepernick decided to throw it elsewhere. Tack an extra 50 yards and a touchdown onto his totals and Moss would’ve left this weekend with some extra respect. Instead, it’s just another failed attempt for Moss to win a title.
Donte Whitner was involved in enough blown coverages and missed tackles to choke a horse on Sunday, just as he went missing during New Orleans’s comeback against the 49ers in the divisional round last year. In that game, the 49ers were able to drive down the field and score the game-winning touchdown,3 absolving Whitner of his mistakes; this time, they weren’t able to come back, and people watching the tape will see a player who was targeted on many Ravens plays. You can say the same for Chris Culliver, who was the target on many of Baltimore’s routes up the sidelines.
You would think that a team finishing the season 1-4, then ending up winning the Super Bowl, would be enough to get rid of the concept that momentum really means anything in winning and losing football games. The Super Bowl delivered momentum-riddled moments that analysts and fans alike deemed as turning points for the game. They weren’t, as ex-NFL legends replaced actual, tangible indicators of team performance with abstract, floaty concepts for yet another week.
The first notable momentum-changing moment was one in which the momentum shift was declared after an outcome and then forgotten about when it didn’t actually change things. It was the fake field goal call by John Harbaugh on fourth-and-9 midway through the second quarter. Team Hindsight came out in droves. “You’ve gotta get something from that turnover! You could have gone up 17-3! The 49ers are going to be energized by stuffing that fake field goal and get the momentum!”
Well, as you might recall, none of that ended up meaning anything. The 49ers got no momentum from the stuff, but what they did get was terrible field position, as they took over from their own 6-yard line. That nearly produced a pick-six when Kaepernick was late and inaccurate on a throw to Moss, and after a pair of runs, the 49ers punted the ball away and gave the Ravens the ball back near midfield. Three plays later, they scored on the bomb to Jones. Momentum back. Giving the opposing team terrible field position is one of the concrete benefits of going for it on a fourth down or with a fake field goal, but announcers seem to think that teams who stuff the opposition by going for it suddenly turn into superheroes who will drive down the field for 98 yards in five plays. What usually happens — as happened to the Colts against the Saints when New Orleans went for it on fourth down and failed in Super Bowl XLIV — is that the opposing team stays conservative for three plays and punts to midfield.
The more frequently discussed momentum argument revolves around the power outage, which was obviously an elaborate CBS plot to get 30 more minutes of highly rated television. There’s at least something resembling an outcome here; the 49ers trailed 28-6 at the time of the power failure and went 25-6 the rest of the way.
There are a few reasons why momentum is a pretty sloppy explanation for what happened before and after that power outage. Let’s start with the simplest one: Big scoring margins tend to regress toward closer margins, not larger ones. Teams down a bunch will get aggressive against prevent defenses and produce points, while the team with a big lead will be more concerned with running the clock than scoring points. In addition, the things that occurred to help that one team out to a big edge — namely, turnovers — aren’t likely to keep recurring. Take the 49ers-Patriots game, for example. If there had been a power outage halfway through the third quarter, some would have credited the outage with reinvigorating the Patriots and turning them around. As it turned out, the Patriots didn’t need a power outage, just superior execution and some of the breaks to start going their way.4 Those are the same tools the Niners used to claw their way back into the contest, just with more Steve Tasker cut-ins.
Taken on a micro level, the momentum argument falls apart. Say that the Ravens lost the momentum after the power outage and the 49ers gained it. What happened right after the power outage? The 49ers checked down on third-and-13 and punted. The Ravens got the ball back and picked up 15 yards on their first play, a pass to Torrey Smith. They ran two more plays and then, on third-and-8, Ray Rice came up a half-yard short of a first down. The Niners got the ball back, Kaepernick scrambled a bunch, they completed a couple of passes, and then the Ravens converged on Michael Crabtree and failed to tackle him, allowing him to walk in for a touchdown that began San Francisco’s comeback.
Is that momentum? Or just sloppy football? Because I think the case for momentum is pretty heavily linked to sloppy football in this game. During the first half, when the Ravens had the momentum, the 49ers were full of sloppy plays. They missed tackles in the backfield and sacks that would have created second- and third-and-long situations. They took unnecessary penalties to wipe away their big plays (including the illegal formation on the opening play of the game) and extended Baltimore’s drives with penalties on the defensive side of the ball (like the offsides that turned a third-and-9 stop into a third-and-4 Anquan Boldin touchdown to end Baltimore’s opening drive). They committed two turnovers, one of which came at the end of a long drive that could have given them the lead. And then, when the 49ers gained “momentum,” the Ravens made mistakes. They ran into David Akers to wipe a missed field goal off the board. They took a roughing the passer penalty to help a drive along. They fumbled themselves. You don’t need to lack momentum to play sloppily; you just need to make mistakes.
The other directly correlated relationship between momentum and scoring points was what ended up being the most important, telling stat of the night: how the Ravens did on third down. During their scintillating first half — one in which they supposedly had all the momentum — the Ravens went 6-for-8 on third down, producing a number of key plays in the process. The touchdown passes to Boldin and Jones came on third down, as did the wild, scrambling bomb to Boldin for 30 yards. The 49ers were 1-for-5 on third down, with two sacks on third down in the red zone yielding field goal tries.
No team in the league can pick up 75 percent of their third-down conversions over any appreciable span of the time, and the Ravens were no exception. During the second half, they were 3-for-8 on third down, including failures on their first two attempts. The second failure was caused by a 49ers sack, and the resulting punt return from Ted Ginn gave the 49ers the ball on the Baltimore 20-yard line, from which they scored a touchdown in two plays. When Ray Rice fumbled on the subsequent drive, San Francisco took over on the 24-yard line, had all the momentum, and kicked a field goal after failing to score a touchdown. From then on, Baltimore started converting its third downs again. It shouldn’t shock you that Baltimore essentially played them to a draw the rest of the way, minus the intentional safety at the end.
Why was the blackout supposed to offer the 49ers momentum, anyway? Because it stopped Baltimore in their tracks for a half-hour after they had been dominating the game? If that really made a difference, why wouldn’t halftime have accomplished that? The 49ers didn’t exactly get a momentum boost from that similar respite; they came out and promptly allowed a 108-yard kickoff return to start the third quarter. And if the 49ers only gained momentum after the blackout, why were they able to drive the ball 71 yards in 1:45 at the end of the second quarter to set up a scoring opportunity? The power outage giving the 49ers momentum is an argument that only gets applied after the fact by people who can’t remember (or be troubled to read) the play-by-play. Don’t let abstract, entirely arbitrary concepts stand in for actually watching what happened in the game.
Questions I Never, Ever Thought I Would Have to Ask for $200, Alex
Did Joe Flacco just have the best playoffs of any quarterback we’ve ever seen?
Not joking. This is a conversation that absolutely needs to be had. The Flacchise has numbers that place him into that discussion, and if anything, the numbers might underrate how good he’s been during these playoffs.
Let’s start with the numbers, though, because they’re staggering. Flacco finished the postseason having gone 73-of-126 (57.9 percent) for 1,140 passing yards with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Eleven to zero. Only one other player since the merger has produced a touchdown-to-interception ratio equal to or better than that in the playoffs, and it’s a guy who has a pretty sterling postseason reputation: Joe Montana.
Montana’s 1989 season pretty clearly stands out to me as the greatest postseason run since 1970, but I’ve gone ahead and listed some other notable Super Bowl–winning postseasons that might put Flacco’s big January into context:
It’s admittedly going to be hard to top Montana, who basically played perfect football for three consecutive weeks. Flacco arguably had to shoulder a heavier portion of the workload than Montana did with his 49ers, but that’s partly due to a shift in league trends; note that Aaron Rodgers (2010) and Eli Manning (2011) each threw more passes than Flacco and the rest of the group. Based on the numbers, Flacco probably belongs in a group just behind Montana, alongside Troy Aikman (1992) and Rodgers’s 2010 campaign.
I’ve got one argument that might push Flacco forward: Virtually every one of his throws came in a competitive situation. And sure, you can make the argument that every throw in the playoffs is a competitive situation, but … well, just take a look at what Montana did that year. The 49ers blistered their opposition in the playoffs, as they beat the Vikings 41-13, the Rams 30-3, and finished up with a 55-10 spanking of the Broncos in the Super Bowl. Montana obviously had a huge role in helping to make that happen, but isn’t it also likely that he got to spend some of that time throwing against exhausted defenses that were overplaying the run as the Niners kept up their big lead?
Flacco didn’t really get that opportunity. He led by 15 points against the Colts and Patriots, but that came early in the fourth quarter in each of those games. Sunday was really the first time he had a big lead against a team with plenty of time on the rest of the clock, a situation where the opposition is expecting a run on virtually every offensive snap. Instead, Flacco spent virtually his entire playoff run throwing against teams in competitive, relatively close situations. It wasn’t his fault that those games were close, of course, but it’s still a more difficult way to accrue numbers than it would be for a guy playing against eight in the box in the fourth quarter.
I don’t think you can put Flacco ahead of Montana in 1989. If you want to put him second on that list, I don’t think I would put up too much of an argument to the contrary. Flacco was everything you’d want from a quarterback yesterday,5 making crisp, accurate throws from the pocket or buying himself time by eluding pressure before making a throw while scrambing. He put passes in places where only his receiver could make a catch (like the throw to Boldin that converted on third-and-1 after the coach’s challenge) and pulled off deep throws that other quarterbacks wouldn’t be able to hit. Most notably, though, he executed a game plan with little margin for error — throws almost exclusively to the sidelines — that very few quarterbacks in the league could pull off.
Whatever adjectives you want to attach to Flacco are a matter of personal preference. I just know that there are a lot of “elite” quarterbacks who will never have a playoff run as good as the one Joe Flacco just delivered — and that labels often find themselves obstructed, for better or worse, by the Super Bowl ring on a quarterback’s finger.
Thank You for Not Coaching
The Harbaugh brothers are, to me, two of the five best in-game coaches in the league. John rarely makes appearances in this space, and when he does, it’s for ticky-tack stuff, things like missing an opportunity to go up nine with a two-point conversion and limited time left. Jim is my Coach of the Year and I’m pretty sure I became his agent by accident in midseason. On Sunday, though, big brother John outfoxed Jim. In fact, the second half was probably the worst in-game decision-making I’ve seen from the normally brilliant 49ers head coach.
Let’s start with John, who had two very interesting decisions. First, the aforementioned fake field goal. Was it a terrible call? I don’t think so. The arguments that the Ravens needed the points don’t hold muster; your goal in the first half is to score as many points as possible, not to try to hit a specific lead. If the Ravens thought they would score more points, on average, by going with the fake than they would have by kicking the field goal, it’s a justifiable decision. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable position to take. Furthermore, the fake field goal came in a situation where the 49ers were very vulnerable: they sold out to block the kick, and once rookie kicker Justin Tucker got outside of the hashmarks, he was running a sweep with a lead blocker — Baltimore’s second-best blocker, tight end Ed Dickson — and just one defender between him and the end zone. Unfortunately, the defender was Patrick Willis, and he just narrowly held off Dickson and slowed down Tucker long enough for the cavalry to arrive and take Tucker down just short of the sticks. I didn’t hate that play call at all.
I hated the intentional safety in the fourth quarter for personal reasons.6 As a strategic decision, I thought it was pretty clever. There is some risk in taking a safety with 12 seconds left and turning the ball over to the Niners for a kickoff return and possible free kick to tie the game, so it becomes a question of how much time you can burn off the clock before taking the safety. Ravens punter Sam Koch handled the situation calmly, taking as much time off the clock as possible without Orlovskying, but Harbaugh threw in a bit of dastardly brilliance: purposeful holding! Everybody in a Ravens uniform in that end zone besides Koch either tackled somebody in a 49ers uniform or started to slow dance with them while ripping their jersey off. It makes total sense: When you’re already planning on committing a safety, holding in the end zone is a freebie. If the referees throw a flag for holding in that spot, they’ll award the Niners a safety anyway. This is just like the Giants running 12 men onto the field last year during New England’s futile final drive.7
As for Jim, his logic fell apart during the San Francisco comeback, when the 49ers failed to go for two on either of their touchdowns. Chase Stuart wrote about this early during the 2012 season, focusing on when teams are down 15 in the fourth quarter. His argument is sound: It’s more important to go for two early so you know whether you’ll need to change your game plan and get an additional score with as much time to go as possible. The counterarguments don’t hold up to logic. Yes, you’re in trouble if you don’t get that two-point conversion on your first score, but you’re in even worse trouble if you don’t get the two-pointer the second time around, because there might not be any time to get that extra possession you’ll need if you fail. Failing early, in this case, is preferable to failing later. The argument that it might demoralize your team doesn’t make much sense; players get demoralized when they go for two at the end of a game and don’t succeed, too. Saving the decision to go for two is just putting off the difficult end of a comeback; it’s playing to lose later, not win earlier.
The argument is even easier to apply to San Francisco’s situation. When the 49ers scored in the third quarter to go down 28-12, they trailed by 16 points with 22 minutes of game time left. You don’t generally want to chase a specific score with that much time on the clock, but in such a desperate situation, you have to hope that your defense comes up with stops; the 49ers can’t chase 35 or 40 points there. If the 49ers go for it and succeed, they’re down 28-14; they no longer need to attempt a two-point conversion. If they fail, they’re down 28-12, but it’s not a three-possession game; they can still tie up the game with two touchdowns and two two-point conversions. By kicking the extra point, they went down 28-13, which left them still in need of a two-pointer at some point in the future. The FootballCommentary two-point model suggests that the 49ers needed to think they could convert just 36 percent of the time to justify going for two. It’s a high-upside, moderate-downside decision that Harbaugh should have chosen to execute.
The 49ers then kicked again when they scored to go down eight points, making it a 28-20 game. After the two teams traded field goals, the 49ers scored a touchdown to go down 31-29, pending a now-essential two-point conversion. They failed, and it changed the rest of the game. Had they succeeded earlier, they could have kicked an extra point here to tie the game. Had they failed, they would have had two shots to go for two and could have made game-plan adjustments accordingly; even if they failed all three times, which is exceedingly unlikely, they could have tried a fourth two-pointer here to go down 31-28 and only require a field goal on their subsequent drive. Instead, they failed on this one two-pointer and still needed a touchdown after the Ravens kicked another field goal.
I don’t really blame Harbaugh for the two-point conversion call or the call on the fourth-down throw to Michael Crabtree. Those were both plays where the Ravens took advantage of Kaepernick’s inexperience in identifying rushers and got a free blitzer on Kaepernick right at the snap. The blitzer forced Kaepernick to get the ball out quickly to his hot receiver, and neither of the throws was very good. On the other hand, the decision to kick a field goal down 28-20 on fourth-and-2 from the Baltimore 16-yard line at the end of the third quarter? That surprised me, especially after David Akers missed the previous field goal from 39 yards out. San Francisco’s running game had been dominant for most of the half, and Haloti Ngata was out with a knee injury; all of this pointed to the Niners picking up the two yards on the ground — enough to make it worth going for it from there. The Niners just left too many opportunities to be aggressive on the field, and it came back to bite them when they couldn’t throw the ball in goal-to-go situations.
Baltimore has now won three consecutive games as an underdog against elite competition. In each game, the Ravens were the more aggressive team when it came to in-game decisions. I’m not suggesting that they won specifically because they were more aggressive, but it definitely helped their chances.