I watched the Super Bowl last night with a few friends and when the game was over, they were all either disappointed or unimpressed with the game. I think it’s because no one had a vested interest and so they just wanted something underdog-y to happen; when the 49ers went down early and didn’t complete the comeback, I think that was the disappointing part for them. As for me, I thought it was a really entertaining game: it had good play, a big comeback, big plays, big hits, and some interesting decisions. The underdog won and the game hit the over. If that isn’t exciting, what is? Some thoughts on the game after the jump.
Following their pattern as of late, the 49ers fell behind early. They took a penalty on the first play of the game and went three and out, giving the ball to the Ravens at midfield. They promptly went down the field and scored a touchdown, putting the 49ers into their familiar position. But San Francisco responded well, going the other way for a field goal. The first quarter ended without any particularly interesting or surprising decisions or choices after Baltimore punted into the 49ers’ end zone.
Things did take a turn quickly in the second quarter as the 49ers fumbled in good scoring position (1st and 10 at the Ravens’ 24), which the Ravens converted into a touchdown to go up 14-3. Kaepernick then lofted a throw that was easily intercepted by Ed Reed, which led to the first interesting choice in the game. The Ravens drove to the 49ers’ 15 and after a one yard run and two incompletions faced 4th and 9 at the 14. The Ravens ran a fake field goal and picked up 8 of those yards, coming up just short of the first down marker. The typical stats debate literally unfolded in my living room; one friend said it was a mistake to take the 3 points off the board (assuming a 30 yard field goal is as good as made; they do appear to be over 90% good at this point) while another said that now the 49ers are stuck deep in their own territory. Most of the numerically-inclined know that going for it is typically the right choice when you get that close to the end zone. If you convert the first down, you have a pretty good chance of scoring a touchdown (or you can always kick a field goal later), and if you don’t the other team has a long field to march. As it turns out, the Ravens were indeed able to hold the 49ers to a three-and-out and three plays later they hit a 56 yard bomb to Jacoby Jones for a touchdown. This time at least, the stats choice won out.
Taking over after the two minute warning the 49ers put together a solid drive, aided by a Ngata personal foul, down to the Ravens’ 9 and called timeout on 3rd and 2 with a timeout in hand and 21 seconds left on the clock. A pass was called but Kaepernick couldn’t find anyone or scramble, and took a 0-yard sack to bring up fourth down. The 49ers let the clock run down to three seconds, took their last timeout, and kicked a field goal to end the half at 21-6. I think this was interesting on both sides. First, the 49ers could have very reasonably gone for it on fourth down. They were down 18 at this point and obviously needed to catch up a bit. On the downside, if they failed they would come up empty-handed and (unlike the Ravens’ fourth down we just covered) there wouldn’t be enough time to take advantage of Baltimore’s poor field position. On the other hand, since they had a timeout they had the whole playbook available; even if they decided to run and got the first but didn’t score, they could have called timeout and had time for two throws to the end zone. Since Baltimore would get the ball to start the second half, it would be much more attractive to be down by 11 instead of 15. But, I don’t necessarily fault the 49ers for just taking the points there.
The interesting decision for the Ravens was a failure to take a timeout after the sack so that there would be a little time left after the 49ers kicked the field goal. It wouldn’t be enough time for a drive, but it would be enough time for a kick return. Especially considering that Jacoby Jones took the second half kick-off for a touchdown, getting him an extra touch couldn’t have hurt. It’s the Super Bowl; you need to maximize your chances to score points. But since Baltimore was going to get the ball anyway and was up 15, it probably wasn’t a big concern. Jones did take that kick-off back, and the Ravens went up 28-6. San Fran took over and ran a couple plays until the lights went out, then punted the ball away. The Ravens picked up a first down on their next play but then got to 4th and 1 at their own 44. This is another spot where the numbers say to go for it, but I can see how you would punt the ball away. The Ravens were in a pretty commanding position and while it would be a positive to run more clock or even score more points, it also makes sense to play conservatively and let your 22 point lead work for you.
Unfortunately for the Ravens, this is when the 49ers decided to become the explosive team we’ve seen since Kaepernick took over. Kaepernick scrambled twice for 20 yards, there were a few small plays, then he hit Davis for 18 yards and followed it up with a pass to Crabtree that went the rest of the way after a couple bad tackles. This is also where thinking ahead a bit would have helped. After the touchdown the 49ers were down 28-12. Being down by 16, you know that it’s likely a two-point conversion decision will come into play at some point. The game is halfway into the third quarter, so it’s possible you’ll only score two more times. If you go for 1 now, you’ll be down 15 and need to go for two on one of those touchdowns just to get a tie. If you go for 2 now and get it, you’ll just need those touchdowns; your later decision-making is easier because you’ll know now what has to happen on those other conversions. If you go for 2 now and don’t get it, you’ll know you need to go for two again later, again making your decision-making easier. But they just kicked the extra point, so now the game is 28-13.
The Ravens went three and out deep in their own territory, so a good punt return gave the 49ers the ball at the Baltimore 20 and they quickly scored a touchdown. Again, at this point it’s 28-19 and you’re down by 9. A two-point conversion now and you’re down by 7; easy choice later. If you fail the conversion, you’re down two scores and know you need that time to get the extra score. If you kick here, you know you have to go for two next time, which just means that you won’t find out if you need that extra score or not until there’s even less time remaining. By not going for two on either of these touchdowns, the 49ers were saying “we might need an extra score later, but I’d rather not find out yet”. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. But, they kicked and made it 28-20.
The Ravens seemed to do all they could to make the 49ers’ decision easier, because they fumbled the ball right back on their own 24. Unfortunately for the 49ers, they could only pick up three yards and lined up to kick a field goal. It missed, but fortunately for the 49ers there was a running into the kicker penalty. I personally thought that was a crap call; it looked like Akers realized there was a guy under him so he fell down without really being touched. But the call was made, so the 49ers had 4th and 2 from the 16. Instead of go for the conversion, they kicked to make it 28-23. The probability of conversion does drop dramatically from 4th and 1 to 4th and 2, but it’s still only two yards and you’re still losing. Just to throw a couple numbers at you, the 49ers averaged 6.3 yards per rush for the game and nearly 10 yards per dropback. But I guess since they had already committed to putting all their decisions off until later, they took the easy choice and kicked. Akers was already out on the field anyway.
The Ravens made that decision look especially poor by using the rest of the quarter and the beginning of the fourth to drive deep into 49ers’ territory. They got to first and goal at the 5, picked up 4 yards, and then ran it for no gain and predictably went play-action on third down and had nowhere to go with it. Instead of go for it again on 4th and 1, they kicked the field goal. If you read all the stuff above, you know this was a bad choice. Even if they didn’t convert, and even if the 49ers got a first down after that, the Ravens could have stopped them and forced a punt from inside their own 20. If they scored the touchdown they would have been up 12, forcing the 49ers to get two more touchdowns with only 13 minutes to play. The only mitigating factor I see is that the field goal put the Ravens up 31-23, meaning the 49ers would need that two point conversion just to tie the game. Still, that isn’t particularly comforting if I’m in charge of the Baltimore squad.
Fulfilling that sense of dread, the 49ers went down the field and scored a touchdown in only five plays. Finally being ‘forced’ into the decision, the 49ers went for two but failed to pick it up, leaving the score at 31-29. The 49ers were fortunate in that they had their scoring explosion in the third quarter and so had ten minutes to figure out how to make up those points; if their 17 points in 4 minutes had come in the fourth quarter, they might not have had enough time to put together another drive. As things went, the Ravens put together another drive and got to 4th and 2 at the 49ers’ 20, where they kicked a field goal. Passive decision making should not be a surprise at this point, but it is undeniably valuable to be up 5 instead of 2 with only a few minutes left in the game.
Notably, that drive was extended by a pass interference call on the 49ers, giving Baltimore a first down and 14 yards. That’s notable in part because the 49ers followed up by driving to the Baltimore 5 where they threw three incompletions, including one on fourth down to Crabtree where every 49ers fan wanted pass interference called. I for one didn’t think it was clear interference; I see that play called with and without a flag fairly often. I also don’t see the referees throwing the flag in that situation; if someone had, you would read a fair number of columns about how no one wants to see officials deciding the game like that. And you also need to keep in mind that the play started on the five, which means the defender can chuck the receiver all the way to the goal line. Both guys got their hands into each other before the end zone and from there on out you could call a penalty either way, as I saw it; Crabtree was doing as much grabbing and pushing as anyone. The 49ers also made a questionable choice by not running at all; again they averaged over 6 yards a run for the game. But with three shots from the 5 they passed three times.
There was one last interesting decision, which was the safety after Baltimore ran the clock down but couldn’t get the first. I thought it was the right call. They had 4th and 7 on their own 8 with 12 seconds left. If they go ahead and punt, the 49ers get the ball in good position for a Hail Mary or even just a good punt return followed by a regular play. If they take a safety, they allow a field goal to tie the game but they get to free kick from their 20 instead, making the field goal much less likely. They also get to run time off the clock, reducing the chances for a play after the return. That’s what happened, as the punter was able to dance around long enough for 8 seconds to come off and time expired during Ginn’s return.
I’ll wrap up by noting a few points from Bill Barnwell’s game summary. First, I don’t think it’s right to say that Baltimore is clearly the best team or that they’re a great team. Even with the playoff games included, my model has them as 8th best in the league, just about even with the Texans. To say that none of their playoff wins were flukes is to ask exactly what was normal or expected about that 70 yard bomb against the Broncos. I’m sure that some of the take-away message of these playoffs, along with recent runs by the Giants, is that we know less about football teams than we think we do. On the other hand, the stats guys all said to look out for the Packers when they won their Super Bowl; their numbers were better than their record indicated. Instead I think it tells us that we should remember that football games are noisy and that teams are typically fairly even; it really is Any Given Sunday out there and in the playoffs you just need three or four of them. It seemed a little odd to me that Barnwell played the ‘great team’ card and then spent some time telling us how easily it could have gone the other way.
That being said, I do enjoy how Barnwell has recently taken to telling us both versions of the story for players depending on how games happen to turn out. Lost a bit in the shuffle was Patrick Willis, who led the 49ers in tackles for the game. He’s made the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro list (second team once) every year he’s been in the league, but could be the next guy on the list of Great Players Who Never Won. Obviously it’s early in his career, but you never know when a career will end.
As a final note, I’ll come back to those two point conversions again. What’s kind of funny is that if the 49ers had taken the lead at the end of the game, they would have gone for two again! They were down 34-29, so if they get the touchdown it’s 35-34. Being up by 1 or 2 is no good, but being up by three means a tie game if the Ravens go the other way for a field goal. Had the 49ers gone for two earlier in the game than they did, the game might have unfolded a bit differently, or at least we could have seen a few conversion attempts instead of one. But at any rate, I think it was a very solid game that was a little passive on the coaching side, but still played at a high level. It was a good way to end the season, which leads to the depressing realization that there won’t be any football for nearly half a year. I hope everyone enjoyed it while they could!