The Offseason Informant: And that’s why they play the games

What a game! Following the Baltimore Ravens’ stunning ride to a championship, I think we can safely dispense with the idea that home field advantage, regular-season performance, or really any other factor has any effect on who wins the Super Bowl. For the fourth time in six years, a team that began in the wild-card round ended up lifting the trophy. Regular season success is great, but it guarantees nothing and it often has led to playoff letdowns, as I am sure Peyton Manning’s Broncos can attest.

I don’t mean to say “I told you so” because I was desperately hoping for a different result, but in the aftermath of the Manning-Tebow swap last spring, I predicted in this column that the Broncos would reach 10-12 wins, cruise by the rest of the AFC West, and bow out of the playoffs in excruciating fashion. So it proved to be, as the Broncos fumbled and stumbled their way to defeat against an inferior Ravens team in one of the longest, coldest games in NFL history. Manning does not deserve all of the blame, or anything near it; however, it is indisputable that the Broncos’ offense shut down when the stakes were raised and the weather became colder, and without the two kick-return touchdowns chipped in by the electrifying Trindon Holliday, the Broncos would not have even been in position to blow the game with one of the most egregiously poor defensive plays that you will ever find in football. In the end, Baltimore played well, Denver played poorly, and a couple of costly Tom Brady interceptions the following week sent the Ravens on their way to New Orleans.
San Francisco’s appearance was less unexpected. After falling a few special-teams gaffes away from the big game last year, the Niners entered the playoffs this season with a full head of steam behind newly-promoted quarterback Colin Kaepernick. With Atlanta untested and the Packers struggling at the end of the season, San Francisco was the arguable favorite to win the NFC, and they demonstrated why, hammering Green bay in the Divisional round, before pulling a madcap comeback to defeat Atlanta on the road in the NFC Championship Game after falling behind 20-3.

The storylines going into the Super Bowl were irresistible: brothers Jim and John Harbaugh coached the opposing teams, on the one hand led by the phenomenal Kaepernick and on the other by the retiring legend Ray Lewis, eager to snag a second ring on his way out of the league. In one of the funnier oddities of this already-exceptional Super Bowl, Lewis’ first career sack in the NFL was on a certain Jim Harbaugh, who played quarterback for the Colts at the time. The game began with a Ravens onslaught, and for a time it seemed that Baltimore could do no wrong. The defense held, Joe Flacco’s desperate heaves managed to find their targets again and again in the face of the San Francisco rush, and the Ravens were cruising in the first half. Following a generally jaw-dropping (not necessarily in a good way) performance by Beyonce at halftime, Baltimore seemed to put the game out of reach with Jacoby Jones’ 108-yard kickoff return. However, a few plays later, a partial power outage suspended the game for over half an hour, and San Francisco came back with a vengeance when play resumed. The balance of luck in the game shifted strongly toward the Niners, and they took full advantage, pulling within a two-point conversion of tying the game. In the end, however, a failed fourth-and-goal with the game on the line and a clever deliberate safety by Baltimore simply left San Francisco without any more time. Baltimore won the game, but it was far from being the best team in the NFL this season. This type of unexpected run is the blessing and curse of a playoff system, and it seems that now more than ever, the championship is wide-open to all comers. This is the legacy of the 2012 Ravens, who won when it counted most.

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