AFC North: Grading Super Bowl XLVI
NEW ORLEANS -- The Baltimore Ravens did just enough right Sunday night to hold off a furious comeback by the San Francisco 49ers and win their second Super Bowl title. They made just enough big plays, just enough stops on defense and their free-agent-to-be quarterback likely made himself a pile of money. This is how the 49ers graded out, while this is a look at how it broke down for the Super Bowl XLVII champions in the Superdome:
Joe Flacco dominated the first half with three touchdown passes and looked completely comfortable and in control for most of the night. The Ravens' offense in general looked sluggish in the third quarter, but that likely had at least something to do with the fact that a combination of the halftime show, Jacoby Jones' kick return touchdown and the 33-minute power outage kept them off the field for nearly 90 minutes. Once Baltimore was able to get back into a rhythm, Flacco picked up where he'd left off, completing a couple of key passes to Anquan Boldin on the field goal drive that stopped San Francisco's 17-0 run.
When your kicker has the longest run of the night, as Justin Tucker still did well into the fourth quarter, your run game isn't what it ought to be. San Francisco limited Ray Rice all night and forced a critical Rice fumble (off a screen pass) that set them up for a field-goal drive. Backup Bernard Pierce seemed to be more effective than Rice, and for a time it looked as though they could deploy the two in combination, especially when they were up 28-6. But they were unable to sustain anything with the run and had to lean on Flacco and the passing game once the score got close.
Really a tale of two games here. The Ravens had Colin Kaepernick flustered in the first half, making him move his feet and prompting him into bad decisions. Ed Reed had an interception, and the Ravens had some important pass breakups in one-on-one coverage. But the third quarter featured too many breakdowns in coverage and tackling as Kaepernick grew more comfortable and was able to find everyone from Vernon Davis to Michael Crabtree to Randy Moss open when he needed them. Ray Lewis was overmatched early in coverage against Davis, and it's possible the Ravens had to sacrifice some pass rush to compensate for that. But they did pick a couple of smart times to blitz, including the play that resulted in Paul Kruger's early sack and the play on which they stopped a two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the game in the fourth quarter.
You have to grade a run defense on a curve against the 49ers, because there's almost no way to contain Kaepernick for a whole game. Frank Gore delivered some tough, bruising runs during the Niners' comeback, and the long run that set up their chance at a go-ahead touchdown late. But what really hurt was Kaepernick's ability to pick up big chunks of yardage on the edge -- none bigger than his 15-yard touchdown run that cut the lead to two points in the fourth quarter. Haloti Ngata's third-quarter knee injury didn't help matters much either.
Jones' 108-yard kick return for a touchdown that began the second half tied an NFL record and appeared at the time as though it might put the Super Bowl away for good. Jones was good all night on kick and punt returns. Tucker didn't miss a kick, and Sam Koch averaged 47 yards on his three punts and saved a touchdown with a tackle on one of the returns. They almost outsmarted the 49ers into ending the game without having to give them the ball back when they decided not to punt from their own end zone in the final 12 seconds. The Ravens' coverage units struggled a bit, which is the only reason for the minus.
John Harbaugh spent the first half coaching circles around little brother Jim with sharp-looking game plans on both sides of the ball. The Ravens' six plays on their first offensive drive were run out of six different formations. Even the decision to fake the field goal that would have put the Ravens up 17-3 late in the second quarter, which seemed foolish at the time, worked out for Baltimore when they were able to force a punt and cash in with a 56-yard touchdown pass from Flacco to Jones. You could come up with any number of reasons the Niners got back into it in the second half, but it's hard to figure a way to pin it on coaching.
OFFENSE: The Patriots' receivers let Brady down in the fourth quarter with drops from Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Hernandez. The passing game was limited with tight end Rob Gronkowski less than full strength with a high-ankle sprain. He didn't get a catch until three minutes left in the first half. Hernandez picked up the slack with a 12-yard touchdown grab in the third quarter. The offensive line held up quite well against a Giants pass rush that recorded five sacks of Brady in the last Super Bowl matchup. Welker was a hot target in the passing game, although he couldn't pull down a key reception late in the fourth quarter. Grade: C.
DEFENSE: The Patriots' much-maligned defense came up big in the biggest game of the season. Playing both safeties deep to defend against the deep pass, the Patriots made it tough for Eli Manning and forced him to throw into tight windows. The New England run defense got pushed around early (70 yards rushing allowed in the first half), but fared better in the second half. The Patriots played more physical after they were sparked by Patrick Chung's hit on Hakeem Nicks along the sideline. The Patriots then allowed Ahmad Bradshaw to score a 6-yard touchdown with 40 seconds left, so they could get the ball back into the hands of Brady. Grade: B-minus.
COACHING: Bill Belichick lost his second straight Super Bowl. The Patriots had a great game plan defensively and were running an efficient offense. But it was questionable to throw on second-and-11 in the fourth quarter — which resulted in an incompletion to Welker and stopped the clock with four minutes left in the game. Then, the challenge on the Mario Manningham catch on the Giants' final drive cost the Patriots a timeout. Belichick prides himself on precision and discipline, which is why having 12 men on the field for defense was so surprising. That penalty negated a recovered fumble for the New England defense and led to the Giants' first touchdown (a Victor Cruz 2-yard catch in the first quarter). Grade: B.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 29-yard field goal. The kickoff coverage team allowed a 34-yard return early in the third quarter. The Patriots' return game was virtually non-existent. Punter Zoltan Mesko was outplayed by Steve Weatherford, averaging 38 yards per punt. Grade: C.