Super Bowl Recap: Baltimore Lets San Francisco Beat Themselves

It’s not often that my pregame analysis actually plays itself out on the field, but that’s what happened tonight in Baltimore’s 34-31 Super Bowl win. It was a few more points than I expected, but the basic view held was that San Francisco was the team more capable of dominating, while Baltimore was less likely to shoot themselves in the foot—and based on that I picked Baltimore to win by three points. That was essentially what the game boiled down to.

The 49ers lost the turnover battle 2-1, and they had some extremely costly errors besides. Their first possession of the game had started beautifully with a 20-yard pass to Vernon Davis, but it was called back for an illegal formation. It begs the question of how you can possibly have an illegal formation on the first play of a game you’ve had two weeks to get ready for. The penalty basically killed that possession. Then on the final, fateful drive, San Francisco had to burn a timeout to avoid a delay of game. If they have that timeout on defense, Baltimore is kicking with about 57 seconds left rather than 12 seconds left and can’t get away with taking a safety and then finishing the game with the free kick.

These were unforced errors by San Francisco, and being on the other side of the coin represented the transformation of the Baltimore Ravens. They’d had better teams in previous seasons—at least ones more capable of dominating, but they also tended to be the ones who made critical mistakes. You can think back to a lapse in defensive coverage in the 2010 playoffs at Pittsburgh, allowing Mike Wallace to shake free for a game-winning touchdown. Or the unspeakable errors at the end of the 2011 AFC Championship Game in New England, with a dropped touchdown pass to win and a shanked field goal to blow overtime. Baltimore’s maturation process completed this year and they proved that it’s not the most potentially dominant team that wins big games, it’s the team that doesn’t beat themselves.

This applies also to the red-zone execution that Baltimore used on both sides of the ball at New England two weeks ago and again tonight in the Super Bowl.  The Ravens cashed in their three trips to the red zone in the first half, while San Francisco settled for field goals on both of theirs. If you even have , say a 2-1 split for Baltimore and a 1-1 split for San Fran, the score is 17-10 at half instead of 21-6.

I would like to say that Baltimore’s experience and red-zone execution were the story, but unfortunately that’s not the case. The power outage made for some entertaining drama, but also clearly gave San Francisco a chance to regroup.  I don’t think the Ravens should have used this as an excuse had they lost—both teams had the same obligation to keep loose and mentally into the game. Furthermore, the 49ers had to try and execute a 3rd-and-14 immediately after not playing for close to a half-hour and in a game that was now 28-6 and every possession was so crucial. It may have helped Frisco catch their breath, but it’s inexcusable to use that as cover for what was nearly one of the biggest meltdowns in the history of sports.

Finally, we come to the final possessions, where San Francisco had four shots from the five-yard line to get in. I didn’t like the play-calling on San Francisco’s part. They only rolled Colin Kaepernick out one time. Baltimore defended it perfectly—but why not make them defend it multiple times? I’ll bet you anything that was the scenario every Ravens fan was terrified of. Having the quarterback loft balls to the corner of the end zone makes one of the great dual-threat players in the game no different than any other dropback passer and ergo eliminates his edge. Furthermore, why was there not better protection against the Baltimore blitz? After the Ravens had stopped a two-point conversion at 31-29, it had to apparent what they would try with the championship on the line. Keep an extra blocker in and make sure Kaepernick at least has time to scan the field and make a decision.

But now we come to the last fourth down play. This paragraph will be a little personal for me, because I lived in Baltimore for four years. And in that four years, I’ve never heard a fan base with a greater persecution complex when it comes to officiating. I can compare them directly to Packers fans and Steelers fans, the other markets I’ve lived in. And while all fans gripe about refs to some degree,  Baltimore was the only NFL town that separated games into two categories—games they won, and games the refs cheated them out of.  Linebacker Terrell Suggs successfully fanned the flames with his repeated jibes at the rival Steelers and Patriots.

Whatever officiating misdeeds—be they real or imagined—are washed away forever in Baltimore, because that no-call on fourth down was as bad as it gets. Baltimore defensive back Jimmy Dykes had his arms around San Francisco receiver Michael Crabtree, well past the five-yard limit. There was no way Crabtree could get to the corner of the end zone to make a play on the ball. This is why the comments of CBS analyst Phil Simms, on how you shouldn’t throw a flag in that situation, simply can’t wash it away. It wasn’t about ignoring a little bit of extra contact. This was defensive holding, done very obviously that blew up an entire fourth down play with the Super Bowl on the line.

There were other bad calls in this game, one of which went against Baltimore—a phantom running-into-the-kicker penalty that let David Akers try another field goal after he missed. This was balanced out though, but a terrible first-half no-call on wide receiver Torrey Smith, who interfered with San Francisco’s defensive back Chris Culliver’s ability to make an interception. One play later, Flacco threw a long touchdown pass.

The fourth-and-goal play was different. There’s no comparable bad call in the game that counterbalanced it. And its why, in spite of having seen an epic football game, replete with power outage drama good for a novel someday, I finish this season with a bad taste in my mouth. I feel like I listened to Ravens fans spend years griping that the Steelers got all the calls and the Patriots won Super Bowls by cheating. Now Baltimore wins a Super Bowl because of a horrific call on the goal line and the timely shipment of some deer antler spray.  Maybe in time I’ll feel differently, but right now this all just doesn’t feel right.

We’ll close on a historical note. You undoubtedly saw the CBS graphics telling you that the 1987 Super Bowl, when Washington came from 10-0 down early to beat Denver 42-10 was—and still is—the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history. There’s another historical precedent that was more apt. In 1981, San Francisco jumped on Cincinnati for a 20-0 lead, only to see quarterback Ken Anderson, the league MVP that year, lead the Bengals back. They closed to 20-14, and ultimately lost 26-21. The decisive sequence—a goal-line stand where the 49er defense delivered four straight times  down close. That was right on the goal-line and was pure smash-mouth. Tonight’s final goal-line drama was a little more finesse-oriented. But it was still the same result—a great comeback, but just a few yards short.