Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"What, Me Worry?"

Super Bowl, anyone?

There's a lot of anticipation building up toward Sunday's Ultimate Game, and we're not simply talking about the usual Super Bowl hype that draws reporters from as far away as Kuala Lumpur and Helsinki to view and critique this most American spectacle of grand excess. It's not really on the scale of those occasional "Clash of the Titans" marquee matchups, as some of us remember from Super Bowls XIII, XVIII, XIX, and even XLIV. These two teams were not the season-long Inevitables cruising toward a February showdown; most of the time that kind of talk was reserved for the Houstons, New Englands, Atlantas, and Green Bays. No, this one is drawing its share of Learned Comments from players and coaches, current and former, who are somewhat quietly anticipating a "purist's" kind of game, a slightly-under-the-radar classic-in-the-making that may not get its full due until years from now.

It's only the second time that both losing teams from the previous year's conference championships have met in the Super Bowl (XXX, Dallas-Pittsburgh, was the other).  Both teams are well-coached, and of course, the "Brother Bowl"/"HarBowl"/"SupeHar Bowl" story  has already been sighted, scoped, tracked, catched, tetched,  fetched, and barbecued from hell to breakfast, as our high-school football coach used to say. Endless other "angles" abound, from the great Ray Lewis' impending retirement to Joe Flacco's emergence as an elite quarterback, from the impossibility (impossibility?) of anyone containing both Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore running the ball, to the predictive value, if any, of last season's 16-6 Thanksgiving night battle won by the Ravens.

But for us, today, the overriding story is an unfamiliar one-- the very real possibility that the San Francisco 49ers might actually be in danger of losing a Super Bowl.  Like, what kind of weirdness is this? The 49ers' Super Bowl record is the Gold Standard of the NFL: five trips to the Big Game, five world championships. No losses. Only one game that even looked like it might be a loss (XXIII). Three epic blowouts. Oh, we know, the Pittsburgh Steelers have more rings, but they've also been beaten twice. Nobody else has 5-0, or anything close to it. Shoot, the 49ers are the only team with more than one Super Bowl win that hasn't also lost at least one 'Bowl. So, since when do we worry about Super Bowls?

Since about nine days ago, actually, to tell the truth. Baltimore is a team that has been built purposefully, step by step, to reach this level, and over the last five years no other team has won with their steady, implacable consistency: from wild-card to division champion, from runner-up to the Super Bowl.  Talk about a five-year plan. Almost every key Raven has been along for the entire ride; there's a definite sense of continuity, not to say momentum, building up around this team. It's not just in the way they play, not just in their talent level, not just in their accomplishments or their coaching, but in everything they do the Ravens present a most formidable opponent. We compare  the desperately brilliant last-minute comeback and overtime win at Denver-- a game almost any other team would have lost-- to the calm, even arrogant manner in which they took control and smothered New England a week later, and we see a team that can win any kind of game, played at any kind of pace, under any circumstance. No matter what happens, no one can say, as we have in previous seasons, that the "real Super Bowl" was won back in Atlanta.  No, sir. To win this one the 49ers are going to have to play their best game to date.

That has rarely been the case. The last two 49er Super Bowl wins (XXIV and XXIX) were cakewalks, both games essentially over in the first quarter. (In truth, Super Bowl XXIX was over as soon as the Niners won the coin toss and elected to receive.)  And there was little drama leading up to those games. In 1989, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen actually had to defend his public comment that he thought his team would win (Heaven knows, rich-guy owners are easy targets for ridicule, but what else was he gonna say?).  And when the 49ers were rated 21-point favorites over San Diego five years later, few, even in the media, were willing to offer up, say, the '68 Colts as counter-example.

The one time the 49ers  nearly got ambushed in the midst of overconfidence (the fans' and media's, we hasten to add, not their own) was in the aforementioned Super Bowl XXIII. After they'd gone and pounded the Chicago Bears into the frozen turf of Soldier Field, few were willing to believe they'd have much trouble with Sam Wyche's Bengals-- that is, until the game started. As it happened, Cincinnati was actually one additional first down away from holding the ball until time ran out and escaping with a 16-13 upset. Instead they surrendered the ball-- and, eventually, the lead and the game-- to Joe Montana with three minutes left.

Now, as for that first Super Bowl, XVI, also against Cincinnati, in the magic season of 1981-- well, after "The Catch" we were so absolutely convinced the 49ers were the 'Team of Destiny', we knew they'd win that game no matter what, even if the Lord Himself had to send an earthquake to tip the field in our favor. Despite the misleadingly close score, the 49ers never even trailed in that Super Bowl.      

So the only comparator to this feeling of pregame uncertainty dates back to January of 1985, when Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins came swaggering into Stanford Stadium for Super Bowl XIX.  Though the 49ers were made three-point favorites in that game (even as they are favored by four this Sunday), you'd have had a hard time convincing most people that was the case. Marino and his 55 touchdown passes were hailed as the harbinger of a new NFL standard, and even such staid, low-key observers as Chuck Noll and Tom Landry were positively gushing over the "unstoppable" Miami offense like teenyboppers at a Justin Bieber meet-'n'-greet.  It was jarring enough to affect even our unruly group as we tried to push our way into a crowded North Beach restaurant the night before the game. We were surrounded by a sea of teal and orange; loud, polyester-clad Dolphin fans on the sidewalk, serenading us with barbed comments about the 49ers' pathetically easy schedule, how the Steeler team which beat us at home had just surrendered 45 points to Marino, and how "games are won and lost in the trenches" and the Miami offensive line had allowed the fewest sacks in the league.

It was a surly evening, as we recall, and although we told ourselves we knew better, none of us could entirely escape the doubts and fears bubbling up from the old subconscious. It wasn't until midway through the second quarter the next day that we realized how foolishly we'd acted, how ridiculously weak our confidence had been, and how little we had learned to appreciate the skill, intelligence, and overall capability of one of the NFL's greatest teams and organizations ever. You all know the rest.

The 49ers have the better team in this tilt. Not by a lot, but by enough. That 2011 Thanksgiving loss turned on a relentlessly blitzing Baltimore defense, and on a bad chop-block call which negated a touchdown. There is no way the Ravens can win this time by blitzing on every down, given Colin Kaepernick's abilities, but without steady pass pressure they can't win either. Absent several turnovers or a truly wretched day from David Akers, the 49ers should be in control of this game midway through the fourth quarter. Flacco is likely to throw the deep ball early, and it's not at all inconceivable he might pull a "Matt Ryan" and pass for a whole lot of yards, but points figure to be much harder to come by. Expect Akers to be a non-factor, and look for the 49ers to separate from the Ravens by a touchdown or two over a field goal or two, on the order of  14-10 or 24-16 or thereabouts.


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