For the first time since 1997 both road teams won their respective Championship games to advance to the Super Bowl. The 49ers and the Ravens had to rebound from early deficits to punch their ticket to New Orleans.
Not only that, both the 49ers and the Ravens shutout their opponents in the second half. It isn’t a coincidence that two of the most physical teams in the NFL will now meet each other in Super Bowl XLVII. For all of the sophistication of the modern NFL, there are still times when the tough guys beat the pretty boys.
Ravens 28, Patriots 13
Trailing 13-7 at halftime on the road against their arch-rivals, the Ravens didn’t look the least bit worried. After what we witnessed in the second half, they had good reason to be so confident. Joe Flacco lit up the Patriots secondary for three touchdowns in the second half as the Ravens destroyed New England and erased the painful memories of last year’s bitter loss in the AFC Championship game.
If that wasn’t enough, the Ravens defence shut down Tom Brady and the high powered Patriots offence in the second half as Ray Lewis’ retirement will have to wait until after the Super Bowl. Bill Belichick looked stunned as he tried to explain to reporters what went wrong for the heavily favoured Patriots.
“They just out-played us and out-coached us tonight. They just made more plays than we did. That’s pretty much the story.”
Before Sunday’s loss to the Ravens Tom Brady was 67-0 at home when leading at halftime.
Star of the game
Ray Lewis had another inspirational game as he led the Ravens defence with 14 tackles. But as great as Lewis is, he wasn’t the main reason the Ravens were able to beat the Patriots.
Joe Flacco was.
For the third straight playoff game Flacco was nothing short of incredible as he not only earned star of the week honours, he won the eighth playoff game of his young career. After the injury to cornerback Aqib Talib, the world opened up to Flacco and he took advantage of his opportunity.
Flacco completed 15 passes, three of those for touchdowns, and played like a franchise quarterback is supposed to in a game of this magnitude. Time and time again Flacco exposed the weak links in the Patriots secondary as he hooked up with Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta.
“He played his butt off again today and he was one of the biggest reasons why we’re here today,” said Ray Lewis to reporters after the game.
In three playoff games this year, Flacco has beaten Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Flacco has thrown eight touchdowns, zero interceptions and has a passer rating of 114.7.
Stiff of the game
Tom Brady and the entire Patriots offence win this award for their brutal effort in the second half.
The Patriots had the ball six times in the second half and, in order, their drives ended like this: punt, punt, fumble, turn over on downs, interception and interception. Those six second-half drives by the Patriots totaled 221 yards of offence but resulted in three costly turnovers.
As well as the Ravens defence played in the second half, it was painfully obvious that the Patriots dearly missed injured tight end Rob Gronkowski. Without the threat of Gronk, the Patriots were only able to get into the endzone once against the Ravens defence, Wes Welker’s one yard touchdown late in the second quarter.
The normally reliable Brady waited too long to call a timeout at the end of the second quarter, so the Patriots had to settle for a short field goal before heading into the locker room. Little did they know that would be the last points they would score the rest of the game. Aaron Hernandez didn’t make any excuses for the poor performance of the Patriots offence in the second half.
“They came to play; they made better adjustments than we did and they outplayed us.”
One of the reasons the Ravens were able to shutout the Patriots in the second half was because of the efforts of relatively unknown players like linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. Ellerbe had five tackles and one very key interception midway through the fourth quarter. With Lewis in the final moments of his lengthy career, players like Ellerbe will be looked upon to help fill the void in the Ravens defence.
At its core football is a violent game.
In a game like this, sometime it’s about who wants it more than the other guy. Ravens safety Bernard Pollard played like a man who was not going to leave Gillette Stadium without a win on Sunday. Pollard had nine tackles, knocked down a pass and forced a key fumble in the fourth quarter. Pollard laid out Stevan Ridley with a devastating open-field hit that caused the Patriots’ running back to fumble the ball.
After a mad scramble, the Ravens recovered the ball and four plays later Flacco put the game away with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin.
Was it a vicious hit? It sure was. But it wasn’t dirty and the Ravens have always prided themselves on playing a punishing brand of football.
The Ravens take their first trip to the Super Bowl in 12 years. Between the Ray Lewis final game angle and the Harbaugh versus Harbaugh storyline, fans will have had their fill of the Ravens come kickoff at the Superdome.
49ers 28, Falcons 24
In 1996, while playing quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, Jim Harbaugh was one win away from the Super Bowl. A one-yard touchdown run by the Steelers’ Bam Morris in the fourth quarter ended that dream for Harbaugh the player.
Seventeen years later, Jim Harbaugh the coach is finally going to the big dance. Under Harbaugh the 49ers are one of the nastiest, most physical teams in the NFL. Even though the Falcons had leads of 17-0 and 24-14 in the first half, the 49ers never blinked.
Not only did the 49ers not blink, they never deviated from their game plan. The Niners will beat you up on both sides of the ball and then unleash Colin Kaepernick. For San Francisco, this win will go a long way to eradicate last year’s painful loss to the Giants in the Championship game from their memory.
At one point in the 49ers win over the Falcons I had to remind myself that this was only the ninth start of Colin Kaepernick’s NFL career. Nine starts and he has his team in the Super Bowl! That isn’t supposed to happen.
In the Divisional round against the Packers, Kaepernick won the game with his legs. Sunday against the Falcons, Kaepernick beat Atlanta with this arm. Kaepernick only ran the ball twice but he was able to complete 16 of 21 passes for 233 yards with a passer rating of 127.7. Thanks to Kaepernick, Niners tight end Vernon Davis had his best game since early October. Kaepernick and Davis hooked up five times for 106 yards and a key touchdown in the second quarter.
In their worst nightmares the Falcons defence could have never imagined that Kaepernick would be able to complete 76.2 per cent of his passes, but that’s exactly what he did. To put that into perspective Steve Young played in 20 career playoff games with the 49ers and had a better single game completion percentage only once in that time. And unlike his counterpart Matt Ryan, Kaepernick didn’t turn the ball over once. Kaepernick has become so important to the 49ers success that it’s hard to remember what they were like before he took over from Alex Smith as starting quarterback.
Stiff of the game
For a costly interception and a bone-headed play at a key time in the game, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is saddled with the award in this game.
With nobody around him Ryan fumbled a perfect shotgun snap.
After the game Ryan tried to explain to reporters what exactly happened on the fumbled snap: “I took my eye off the ball for a quick second and it ended up on the ground. Against a good football team like that you can’t have those kinds of mistakes.”
Ryan, who was so good in the first half, either turned the ball over or was unable to get the Falcons into the end zone in the second half. The problem for Ryan is that with Kaepernick playing mistake free football, the Falcons had no margin for error in such a tight game.
On a day where Frank Gore grabbed a ton of headlines for running for 90 tough yards and two touchdowns, there was another running back that played a key role in the win. Running back LaMichael James had five carries for 34 yards and one touchdown, while added another 64 yards on three kick-off returns.
The ultimate turning point in this game didn’t take place until the very end. With just over one minute to play in the fourth quarter the Falcons had to go for it on fourth-and-four at the 49ers 10 yard line. A beat up Matt Ryan tried to get the ball into the hands of receiver Roddy White only to have linebacker NaVorro Bowman break up the pass to all but seal the win.
If the Falcons had gotten the first down, they would have been first-and-goal with two timeouts left with just over one minute left on the clock. Bowman’s clutch play was something we’ve grown to expect from the 49ers outstanding linebackers.
The 49ers first trip to the Super Bowl since Steve Young’s record-setting game against the Chargers in January 1995. For a franchise that ruled the 1980s and the early 1990s, it has been a long 18-year wait to get back to the big game.