The best team in the NFC vs. the best team in the AFC? The 49ers and Ravens definitely fit that bill this week, and odds seem strong that they will still be in February 2nd in Miami.
The teams are aware of it too.
Ravens’ S Earl Thomas to reporters today: “You think the 49ers are going to the Super Bowl? It could be, let’s see. We’ll just go out there and try to play the best football we can possibly do. And when the Super Bowl comes, whoever we play, they’re going to be in trouble.”— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) November 27, 2019
It seems a little weird for a former Seahawk to look past the New England Patriots in the playoffs, but it’s not hard to understand his confidence.
The Ravens already beat New England this year, after all, and Tom Brady is definitely fading. The best case for Patriots fans is that this is his version of Peyton Manning winning Super Bowl 50 running on fumes, with the help of a dominant defense.
On the other hand, it’s hard to bet against Bill Belichick and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels when they have three months to study what went wrong and work out responses.
One crucial factor may be home-field advantage, which the Patriots will probably have. New England is very used to playing in snow and ice, and Tom Brady thrives in it, as Nick Goss of NBCSports Boston points out:
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is 24-4 in games where the temperature is below 30 degrees, including the playoffs. His record is 5-1 in games with a temperature less than 20 degrees.
Baltimore, not so much. In college, playing for Louisville, the worst winter weather that Florida-raised Lamar Jackson faced (that I could find) was on November 5, 2016, in Boston: high of 55 degrees, partly cloudy, no precipitation. In the playoffs last January against the Chargers in Baltimore, the weather was exactly the same.
The only two coldish weather games I could find in his life were last fall, against two bad defenses, when Jackson wasn’t really trying to win games with his arm.
Hosting Tampa Bay, on a day (December 16) with two inches of rain and temps in the 40s, he was 14-23 for 131 yards (avg. 5.7 yards per pass).
At Kansas City on December 9, it was dry with temperatures hovering around freezing, and he was 13-24 for 147 (avg. 6.1 yards). He fumbled once in each game.
Jackson has smaller than average hands (9.5”), which can be a problem in rain or snow. (Ask Jared Goff, 9.0”, who was terrible in his two rainy college games at Oregon.)
Then again, Tom Brady’s hands are even smaller (9.38”) than Jackson’s, so it’s not automatically a problem. LJ’s complete lack of experience in cold weather is probably a bigger factor, but his hands won’t be helping him out.
Jimmy Garoppolo’s hands (9 1/4”) are even smaller than Brady’s, but he won’t face either team in the playoffs — if at all — until the Super Bowl in Miami, where weather is pretty likely to be pleasant.
If the 49ers do make it that far, that presumed AFC showdown between New England and Baltimore will be their biggest advantage, watching the other two of the best three teams in the league slug it out, and taking notes on what works against them (and what doesn’t).
It seems clear to me that the Niners would have an easier time dispatching Tom Brady and the Patriots. Their decimation of a tough Green Bay team demonstrated how devastating San Francisco’s pass rush is to a pocket passing, older QB, even one of the best.
But Robert Saleh now has a chance to test all of his possible strategies to neutralize Lamar Jackson and probe this offense for weaknesses. Even if the Niners lose — and they are six-point underdogs on the road — the more important goal Sunday is to find vulnerabilities in this offensive juggernaut that can be targeted in a potential February rematch.
It will be rainy, and forcing Jackson to pass — lots of 8 man boxes maybe, including some version of a spy monitoring the speedy QB — might be a good strategy to start with.