Super Bowl XLVII Preview: Five Storylines to Follow

Two months ago not many people envisioned the Baltimore Ravens making a run at the NFL title game. They were dysfunctional offensively, they lacked playmakers defensively, and they employed a quarterback that was costing himself offseason dollars with each poor performance. But as the Packers and Giants proved the previous two postseasons, sometimes all you have to do is catch fire.

Here are five storylines to follow for Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, where the Ravens will host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.

The defense of Kaepernick.
The Falcons may have won a key battle in their loss to the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game but they became so consumed by winning that battle that they wound up losing the war. After watching Colin Kaepernick rip off 181 yards on 16 rushes versus the Packers the week prior, the Falcons were dead set against allowing the quarterback to beat them with the option read. So they aligned linebacker Stephen Nicholas or defensive ends John Abraham and Kroy Biermann at the edge and sent them right at Kaepernick. On the first two series of the game, San Francisco was befuddled by the Atlanta’s game plan and it wound up punting on back-to-back three-and-outs. But the Falcons were so concerned about Kaepernick running at the edges that they lost sight of the fact that Frank Gore was gaining over four yards per carry up the middle. Abraham or Nicholas would fly up the edge and straight at Kaepernick, who repeatedly handed the ball off to Gore or LaMichael James and watched them run through the lane that Atlanta’s defenders had created. And when they weren’t running, Kaepernick exposed the one-on-one matchups that were available to him in the passing game (such as tight end Vernon Davis on safety Thomas DeCoud). In the AFC title game, the Ravens were physical with the Patriots’ receivers at the line of scrimmage and it disrupted Tom Brady’s rhythm in the passing game. But Green Bay got burned playing too much man versus Kaepernick, who often ran for long gains once the Packers’ defenders turned their backs to him. It’ll be interesting to see what approach the Ravens take on Sunday in terms of shutting down this prolific San Francisco offense. If they were smart they would take a page out of what the Rams and Seahawks did in the month of December when the 49ers lost twice in their final five games. Both St. Louis and Seattle won the battles on first and second down and thus put themselves in favorable third down situations. Both teams also got great play out of their linebackers, who not only stopped the run on early downs, but also generated pressure when their number was called for blitz assignments. But it all starts up front. If the Ravens can’t win their individual matchups versus the Niners’ outstanding offensive line, it’ll be a long night for Ray Lewis and Co.

The next step and the transformation of Flacco.
Two months ago Joe Flacco couldn’t win on the road and couldn’t play at a consistent level play to play nevertheless week to week. But thanks to the firing of Cam Cameron and the promoting of Jim Caldwell to offensive coordinator, Flacco is now 60 minutes and one enormous victory away from joining very elite company. Cameron wanted Flacco to consistently beat teams vertically and outside the numbers, which is difficult to do on a weekly basis. And because Baltimore’s offensive line wasn’t playing at a consistent level either, Flacco turned in some rather ugly performances from Week 11 through Week 15. But while Caldwell has kept the same formations as Cameron (mostly the use of either a two-back, one tight end set, or a one-back, two-tight end set), he’s also simplified the offense. He has allowed Flacco to work the middle of the field more and spread the ball out to several different players. Not only is Torrey Smith heavily involved in the vertical game, but Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta are allowed to work the middle of the field and/or the seam of a defense. Caldwell has also brought more balance to the Baltimore offense. For whatever reason, Cameron would often get away from his running game, which is inexcusable when you have backs like Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. With the pressure of having to win games by throwing the ball versus defenses that knew what was coming, Flacco would often be frustrated in the middle of games. Now he’s playing his best ball of the season and most importantly, he’s comfortable and in command of the offense.

Are cracks starting to form in the Niners’ defensive foundation?
The Falcons didn’t average 26.0 points per game this year by accident. Matt Ryan is knocking on the door of playing in a Super Bowl himself and his receivers – Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez – are some of the best in the game. That said, you have to wonder if Dashon Goldson wasn’t exposed a bit in coverage last week. On Julio Jones’ 46-yard touchdown early in the first quarter, there was a communication breakdown between Goldson and cornerback Tarrell Brown. For whatever reason, Brown passed Jones off to Goldson and jumped on an out route by Tony Gonzalez, even though the tight end was clearly covered. Jones then got behind Goldson for an easy score, putting the Niners in a hole early. But even if Goldson and Brown could share the blame on that touchdown, Goldson was also victimized on a 16-yard reception by Roddy White, as well as another 40-yard pass play to Jones later in the game. Again, in White and Jones we’re talking about two of the better receivers in the NFL. But with how well Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith have played this postseason, it has to be a little concerning to Jim Harbaugh that his defense was shredded 477 yards in the NFC title game. Don’t forget that San Francisco also gave up 31 points in the second half versus New England in mid-December, and 42 points to the Seahawks in Seattle one week later. Granted, the Niners didn’t have Justin Smith for that Seattle game but you have to wonder whether or not the blueprint on how to beat San Francisco’s defense hasn’t been laid out over the past month and a half. The good news is that even though he’s not generating sacks, Aldon Smith is still putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks and there has been no dip in the play of linebackers Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis. The Ravens still have their work cut out for them on Sunday.

Which offense can stay balanced?
For as much as fans and the media want to dissect how well a quarterback can orchestrate a dynamic passing attack, balance is still the key to any NFL offense. The Saints finished tied for seventh in terms of rushing attempts the year they won the Super Bowl and were sixth in total rushing yards that season. Yes, they won in large part because of Sean Payton’s playcalling and Drew Brees’ ability to orchestrate that offense. But they were extremely effective throwing the ball because they were also a threat to pound it between the tackles with Pierre Thomas or on the edges with Reggie Bush. Defenses were constantly playing back on their heels that season, which is one of the reasons why New Orleans hoisted the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year. For as much as everyone wants to talk about Flacco and Kaepernick when it comes to XLVII, the “matchup” between Ray Rice and Frank Gore might be more important. As previously stated, the Falcons did a great job of taking away Kaepernick’s ability to hit the edges on the ground in the NFC title game. But Gore killed them running between the tackles so if the Ravens want to focus on tying a lasso around Kaepernick’s legs too, then they better be ready to man up in the middle. That said, if Gore can’t gain traction on first and second down, the edge now swings in Baltimore’s favor because it’ll have Kaepernick in constant third and longs (which is what the Ravens want). On the other side, if Rice can’t get going against that stingy San Francisco front seven, then Flacco may become buried underneath the pressure of having to win the game on his own. Also, Baltimore can’t expect that San Francisco will be as poor tackling as New England was in the AFC title game. The Patriots missed a handful of tackles, which either kept drives alive for the Ravens or set up scores (like Rice’s 2-yard run in the second quarter when Jerod Mayo whiffed on a takedown). Rice will have to earn every yard he gets but if he’s effective, it’ll go a long way in setting up Flacco and the passing game.

The intangibles.
Ray Lewis has racked up a ton of tackles this postseason but he’s also looked slow in coverage and he’s obviously not the same impactful player he was earlier in his career. That said, it’s apparent that his teammates want to win for him (as well as fellow veteran Ed Reed). He’s the heartbeat in that Baltimore locker room and it’ll be interesting to see what kind of an effect he’ll have from an emotional standpoint. Turnovers have also been a key to deciding wins and losses in the postseason, as no team has won a playoff game this year while losing the turnover battle. San Francisco and Baltimore came into the postseason plus-nine in turnovers, which is the lowest margin of the 10 playoff teams, so which team will avoid costly mistakes (and/or produce them in a positive way)? Special teams will undoubtedly play a factor in the outcome as well. David Akers missed a makeable field goal in a controlled environment in Atlanta and his body language following the miss would have you believe he’s a kicker with zero confidence right now. And don’t forget that Baltimore allowed a kick and punt return for touchdown in its win over Denver in the Divisional Round. Finally, how will the “Har-Bowl” factor play into the game? Considering there are only 32 head coaching positions in the NFL and so few siblings in sports (at least ones that coach against each other), it’s truly remarkable that Jim and John Harbaugh will square off in the Super Bowl. While Jim arguably has the better team, John has more postseason experience and more postseason wins. Which Harbaugh will get the leg up on the other before the clock reads double-zero on Sunday?

PREDICTION: The 49ers are the better team, at least on paper. They have the more complete offense, the better defense, and they have the ability to win in the trenches on both sides of the ball. But the Ravens have saved their best football for the end of the year, which is exactly what the Packers did in 2011 and what the Giants did in 2012.

Since Baltimore fired Cam Cameron and promoted Jim Caldwell to offensive coordinator, Joe Flacco has been a different quarterback. Cameron wanted Flacco to consistently beat teams by throwing outside the numbers and refused to stay balanced with his playcalling. But while Caldwell is running the same formations as Cameron (i.e. 12, 21 and 22 groupings), he’s also simplified things. Flacco is now instructed to use the entire field to beat defenses, including up the seam with tight end Dennis Pitta, in the short-to-intermediate game with Anquan Boldin, and yes, down field to Torrey Smith. Caldwell hasn’t forgotten about Ray Rice or Bernard Pierce either, as he’s gotten both running backs in the mix while staying balanced.

Matt Ryan and the Falcons exposed the 49ers’ safety position in the NFC title game, specifically Dashon Goldson. Where they screwed up is becoming too focused on Colin Kaepernick’s running ability. While constantly sending defensive ends and linebackers straight at Kaepernick, Atlanta created huge rushing lanes for LaMichael James and Frank Gore, who killed the Falcons up the middle. Look for the Ravens to take their shots downfield against Goldson and to stay balanced offensively. Defensively, Baltimore needs to win the battle on first and second down and force Kaepernick to make mistakes on third down. Call it a hunch, but I believe Kaepernick’s inexperience will show through at a critical moment on Sunday.

Ravens 24, 49ers 20.

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Freeney speaks out about ankle injury

Media Day for Super Bowl XLIV was today and as expected, Colts’ defensive end Dwight Freeney faced several questions about his ankle injury and his health status for Sunday.


“Hopefully, towards the end of the week it starts to get better,” Freeney said at Tuesday’s media day. “The decision will come later on in the week. It’s kind of early now.”

“The competitor in me says they’ll never stop me from being on the field,” he said with a laugh before adding: “There’s some pain there definitely with throwing everything at it, all types of techniques to find the best thing to get this thing as good as possible. You name it, I’ve probably done it.”

“Obviously, the competitor in me says ‘nothing is going to stop me,’ but that said, it is not up to me — it is up to the coach and the staff,” he added.

Freeney admitted that he probably wouldn’t practice the rest of the week, which is a telling sign that the Colts are hoping that he’ll be healthy enough to play for three hours on Sunday and nothing more. He reportedly walked with a limp today and his ankle was noticeably swollen, according a report by

Caldwell expects Freeney to play in Super Bowl

Jim Caldwell told the media on Monday that he expects defensive end Dwight Freeney to play in Super Bowl XLIV.


Colts coach Jim Caldwell appeared on SIRIUS NFL Radio with Adam Schein and Rich Gannon on Monday and confirmed what a team spokesman said about Dwight Freeney the previous day. The All-Pro defensive end is in Miami, receiving treatment for a third-degree ankle sprain, and is considered questionable for Sunday’s Super Bowl against the Saints.

Caldwell also echoed the refrain that Freeney is a quick healer and has been in this situation before, when it looked as if he wouldn’t play.
The Colts are willing to wait until the very last second to make a decision on Freeney’s status.

“If he’s able to go and capable of going,” Caldwell said, “I mean, we’ll wait until the last hour if need be, and I think he’ll be able to do his job and do it well.”

I’m going to sound like a broken record all week, but so be it: Even if Freeney does play, he won’t be at 100% and that’s all that should matter here. He’s a speed rusher with a bad ankle – how effective does anyone actually think he’ll be?

As a football fan with no alliance to either team, I hope Freeney is able to play and play well. But the reality of the situation is that he has a tear in his ankle and I don’t six days of treatment are going to mend the injury. Again, I hope I’m wrong but this isn’t a good situation for the Colts, no matter how much Caldwell spins it.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

Colts can finally put Jets’ saga behind them

It’s over with – done, finished, finite. What Jim Caldwell did in the second half of the Colts’ loss to the Jets in Week 16 is now moot after Indy soundly defeated the Ravens 20-3 on Saturday night.

Given the reaction of some folks, you could have sworn that Caldwell not only killed the Colts’ quest for a perfect season when he pulled his starters in the second half against the Jets, but he unleashed the spawn of Hades as well. He took a ton of criticism for the decision to rest his starters in the final two weeks of the season, as plenty of people boastfully claimed that the Colts would lose in the first round because of it.

But they didn’t. The defense looked well rested and energized, as it forced four turnovers and held Baltimore to 270 total yards. Peyton Manning and the offense wasn’t as crisp as it has looked throughout the season, but they still racked up 275 total yards and converted in two of three trips inside the red zone.

Granted, the Ravens shot themselves in the foot all night and had they taken better care of the ball, the final score would have been closer. But give credit to Caldwell and his coaching staff for having the Colts well prepared. The Ravens could do very little offensively and when there was a big play to be made, Indianapolis made it – not Baltimore.

Had the Colts lost, the criticism that ensued following Caldwell’s decision to pull his starters against the Jets would have been just. And in some ways, the criticism is still warranted because he pulled the plug on a perfect season.

But the bottom line is that the Colts are moving on thanks in part to Caldwell’s decision to keep everyone healthy and rested during those final two weeks. Ask Bill Belichick if he would have given up part of his salary to go back and sit Wes Welker the week before the playoffs. (Not that it would have made too much of a difference with the way the Pats played that way – but you get the point.)

Photo from fOTOGLIF

NFL Divisional Playoff Preview: Saturday

Arizona Cardinals at New Orleans Saints
4:30 pm ET

If last week’s wild card game between Arizona and Green Bay is any indication, the Cardinals are having a difficult time stopping the opposition. And when the opposition is the New Orleans Saints, who boast the top offense in the NFL, you have to believe this game today could get ugly. Pair that with the fact that the Cardinals racked up 51 points last Sunday against the NFL’s second ranked defense, and that New Orleans is 25th overall in team defense (26th against the pass), and there is more fuel to the shootout theory here. Of course, the game plan for each team should be to try and run the ball to control the clock, and if that’s the case, the Saints have a decided edge with their sixth ranked rushing attack. Remember, though, the key word in “game plan” is “plan,” because it’s not likely the Packers or Cards expected to play an arena league game last week. In other words, you can bet Kurt Warner and Drew Brees will wind up airing it out in this one, with those speedy receivers on both sides reducing the game to a track meet. And really, that’s how this game should be. As for the outcome, we’ll give the rested home team a slight edge. THE PICK: SAINTS 52, CARDINALS 49

Baltimore Ravens at Indianapolis Colts
8:15 pm ET

Speaking of rested players, there is going to be a mutiny in Indianapolis tonight if the Colts lose this game. Head coach Jim Caldwell and owner Bill Polian have been adamant about their belief that resting Peyton Manning and other regulars during most of the final two games, instead of pursuing a perfect 16-0 record, was the prudent thing to do. And while playing those guys would have been a huge risk (see Welker, Wes), you have to believe it was even riskier to not play them. Meanwhile, the Ravens, who come in with a solid ground game that is ranked fifth in the league, are just the kind of team that can give the Colts and their 24th ranked run defense fits anyway. John Harbaugh wants to run Ray Rice all day long and keep it away from Mr. Manning as much as possible, and he’d love to run the ball 52 times like he did against New England. When the Colts do have the ball, they are ranked dead last in rushing offense but second in passing. So guess what they’re gonna do? But the Ravens were in Tom Brady’s face all game last week, and you can expect Ray Lewis and company to try and do the same to Manning, who also has to worry about ball-hawking safety Ed Reed, voted Safety of the Decade earlier this week by USA Today. The Colts are extremely talented and didn’t win 14 games by accident, but that resting players thing is going to bite Caldwell and Polian in the butt. THE PICK: RAVENS 23, COLTS 20

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