When I wrote a preview for the Baltimore Ravens' matchups against the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots for the SB Nation mothership, I was easily able to go back and find relevant past matchups to draw from and get some analysis.
Baltimore played both teams in the regular season and obviously, much didn't change from one meeting to the other in regards to personnel. When it comes to Super Bowl 47 and the matchup between them and our San Francisco 49ers ... it gets decidedly more difficult.
The last time the Ravens and 49ers faced off, it was in Harbowl The First, on Thanksgiving last season.
Our 49ers saw an eight-game winning streak come to a pitiful and rather boring end that day. Alex Smith completed 15 of 24 passes for 140 yards an an interception as the 49ers were held without a touchdown for the first time that season.
On defense, they played well at times, but ultimately folded in the fourth quarter. They allowed Joe Flacco to lead a 16-play, 76-yard drive that lasted almost eight minutes, and allowed it to be capped off by a touchdown pass to tight end Dennis Pitta. San Francisco forced four third down situations on that drive, and all of them resulted in passing conversions by Flacco.
Billy Cundiff wrapped that game up with an insurance field goal, and the 49ers went home with a 16-6 loss in the end of it. We, as fans, did our best to move on from that one - and quickly. It was, in all ways, a terrible game.
But a lot has changed since that day, so let's take a look at what has below.
The Offensive Line
Baltimore matched a franchise record with nine sacks against the 49ers that day. That's nine sacks without Ray Lewis in the lineup. Corey Redding had 2.5, Haloti Ngata had two, Terrell Suggs had three, Tom Zbikowski had one and Ladarius Webb had half a sack.
They spent the whole game chasing down and crushing Smith, and while doing so, made Frank Gore look like he'd never ran for more than 10 yards in his life. They held Gore to a per carry average of 2.8 yards, gaining 39 yards off of 14 carries.
But the line isn't the same as it was in that game, not by a longshot. While Anthony Davis and the right side got absolutely dominated in that game, they are now a model of consistency. Alex Boone plugged in at right guard and together, Boone and Davis were the only two offensive players to play every single snap this season.
In fact, San Francisco's offensive line stayed together as a whole throughout the entire season, which for this team, is clearly progress. We've had some strong players here and there, but they've always been bogged down by inconsistency on the line. In my opinion, nothing is more important to the play of the offensive line than continuity and cohesiveness.
If there's a prop bet out there for the 49ers allowing nine sacks again, you had better bet the under on that one.
Well, here's a negative. Let's go ahead and get this out of the way. If you took David Akers from right now and put him in that game a year ago, it would have ended 16-0 in favor of the Ravens. Akers hit field goals of 45 and 52 yards in that game, accounting for all of the 49ers' scoring.
Last season, Akers broke multiple records, including 49ers' franchise records and the NFL records for most points by a kicker in a season (helped along by a touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree, hilariously enough). He was earning that "automatic" label and most of us had nothing but pure confidence in him kicking from 45 yards.
Now, 52 yards would be a laughable possibility and a 45-yard attempt would result in zero confidence from 49ers fans. Maybe Akers turns it around and finds "it" again. There have been weirder things in the history of the NFL. But it's not likely and if the 49ers expect to win this game, they need to tire out the Ravens' defense and find the end zone.
The Circumstances in the Timing and Fatigue
I am adamantly against blaming entire losses and situations on having an early game on the east coast or something like that, but the 49ers truly did screwed in the schedule-making process a year ago. The NFL expected them to travel the huge distance on the short week to play the Ravens just to fit in with their Thanksgiving plans.
There are plenty of things the NFL could have done to accommodate their plans for that Thanksgiving game, but instead they just plugged it in there. As a result, the 49ers were sluggish thanks to the travel. This is something that is definable. It sucked.
This time around, the teams both get an extra week of preparation. They're both traveling to New Orleans. San Francisco is even arriving a day before the Ravens. So that's nice.
But there's also the fatigue factor. Last season, the short week for Baltimore was made easier by the fact that their previous game, against the Cincinnati Bengals, was also at home. This time around, the Ravens have had a decidedly tougher time in the playoffs. They played at home in the Wildcard game, and their defense saw the field for 87 plays.
Then they traveled to Denver for the double overtime game against the Broncos, in which their aging defense played another 87 snaps. After that, it was off to New England to take on the Patriots where they admittedly had an easier time, but it was still another road game.
The 49ers are clearly in a better position when it comes to fatigue and travel this time around.
Uhhhh The Quarterback!
Last time around, Alex Smith was the quarterback. He had a bad game, but he also was sacked nine times, the majority of which were clearly on the offensive line. Still, it was Smith's perceived lack of explosive play that really held the 49ers back. Remember, this guy was doubted in his offensive ability all the way up to the touchdown frenzy at the end of the divisional game against the Saints.
While the haters are one extreme, Smith does have some supporters on the other side of that extreme spectrum. I was somewhere in the middle. I believe that a ton of things went wrong against the Ravens, but I also don't think its unfair to suggest that a more "explosive" player could have taken charge of that game.
Enter Colin Kaepernick.
If the Kaepernick of today were to enter that game against the Ravens, I think he would have ran away with it. Or at the very least, he would have forced the Ravens to adjust. They were attacking so hard, that an option run from Kaepernick would have been just the perfect thing to have them scratching their heads and wondering what happened as he charged into the end zone.
In the Super Bowl, we obviously will be able to expect the Ravens to be prepared for that possibility. We're just talking about last year's game.
Still, it's not up for debate: the 49ers have a capable quarterback who is much more explosive than Alex Smith. He is dynamic and he puts the fear of his running ability into defenses. To this point, we haven't seen him be totally careless with the ball and the turnover numbers haven't skyrocketed, but the 49ers do need to take some extra cautions with guys like Ed Reed lurking in the secondary.
So really, there's a ton different about this game. What we can draw from the first meeting is the simple .... deduction that the 49ers are probably a more dynamic, better team at this point. And that's without even looking at the Ravens. I'm sure a Ravens fan will come into this thread and talk about what's different for them, or at least I hope they do.
I'll bet one thing for certain: this game will not finish with a 16-6 score.