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Thursday, January 31, 2013

NFL Predictions 2013: Super Bowl XLVII

Baltimore Ravens vs San Francisco 49ers: SF -3.5 (Pinnacle)

To put the Super Bowl bettting in perspective, let's consider that betting on the Pro-Bowl exceeded the Heats-Celtics and Thunder-Lakers games combined.  The Pro-Bowl people.

With more than $90 million expected to be bet on the Super Bowl in Las Vegas and who knows how much in the offshore world, it's an understatement to say that people all across the world are looking for an edge. Let's take a closer look and see what we find.


As the conference championship games were winding down, Vegas put out a point spread around -5 or -4.5. Immediately sharp money took the Ravens and the semi-official opener settled around -4.5 or -4. Since  then we haven't seen a lot of significant movement. The line has settled at -4, but  -3.5 is out there if you shop around.

What's important for us is where the line is going to go leading up to kick off?  We know the public is going to come in heavy on the 49ers during the weekend. How will the sharp money respond? Will they wait for the best Baltimore number they can get? That's a likely assumption given how predictable betting patterns are.  Personally I'd love to see the 49ers hit -3, but I'd also like a yacht, personal jet, and VIP pass for the winning locker room too.

Superficial Storylines, Fluff Pieces, and Over-Analysis

If you're looking for more exhaustive analysis about Ray Lewis or the Harbaugh family tree, you came to the wrong place. The national media has over-analyzed the storylines to death. My question is whether or not there is any line value to be had.

Against the Odds

Based on the odds to win the Super Bowl before the playoffs began, the Ravens had a 9% chance to win the big show. And based on what they had to overcome along the way, they are the first team in over 20 years to win in back-to-back playoff games as more than touchdown underdogs.

But Who Are the Ravens, Really?

Football Outsiders have the Ravens 7th in their weighted power rankings while the 49ers are 4th.

Statistically, the Ravens have had their best two defensive games in a row. Based on what we've seen all year there are two ways of looking at this, and media members will spin it depending on what point the want to prove.

All season the Ravens defense mostly resembled a bend-but-don't-break unit. They allowed teams to march up and the down the field in between the 20's, but they would tighten up in key situations.  They were amongst the league leaders on third down and in red zone defense.  In December, these areas faltered and you saw what happened on the scoreboard.  In the playoffs though, they not only reverted back to their earlier form, but they took it up a couple notches and shut things down. 

On the other side, the Ravens are coming off one of their best offensive performances. The play on both sides of the ball has also masked some very subpar special teams play.

What makes this team so interesting to evaluate is the nature in how they've got to New Orleans.  I picked against Baltimore when they faced Indy, but didn't have any official picks for their last two games.  In hindsight, that turned out to be wise because you would've had a hard time convincing me they were going to pull off what they did.

Their playoff run has definitely given them the belief they can overcome any challenge they face on or off the field, but will the two week break and unique experience of the Super Bowl render their previous wins irrelevant?

The QB Factor

Since QB's win most Super Bowl MVP's, it would be foolish to skip over this position for this game.

Kaepernick remains a deadly threat, but we saw some of those lingering rookie signs of inconsistency last week. This is something I mentioned going into the Packers game, but that obviously fell on deaf ears after one of the best QB performances we've seen in some time. The new read-option that's been implemented has only enhanced what was an already deadly run game. Now if you want to stop them, you not only have to be extremely disciplined and smart, but you have to execute strong fundamentals once you do get the chance to stop a play.  That's easier said than done when you're talking about Gore and Kaepernick. You can do everything right within the scheme and still get beat on brute force and/or athleticism.

Flacco remains hot and cold with his deep balls in the playoffs. He was quite proficient in this area before Jim Caldwell came in and changed up the game plan. Of course most only have his hail  mary prayer against the Broncos in their minds, but this is something to keep an eye on as the 49ers aren't likely to give him much.  They will continue using man coverage underneath with a bracketing cover two scheme up top. A place on the field where Flacco did dominate vs the Patriots was in the red zone though.  Baltimore have been very good at converting inside the 20 all year, but they hit a skid in December before stepping up again in the playoffs. These peaks and valleys make it difficult to get a beat on what the Ravens are really about.

Brotherly Love

I have to give Jim the edge, but I've been a big fan of John's too ever since he was an ace special teams coach under Andy Reid in Philadelphia. I side with Jim if for no other reason than the fact that he and his staff have consistently got more out of his roster than the advanced stats suggest they should. In the 17 statistical categories I look at, the 49ers are average or below average in 6 of them. Not many teams are able to consitently cover inflated point spreads over the course of a season, let alone two, with those kinds of numbers.

The other feather in Jim's hat was the decision to switch to Kaepernick full- time. Alex Smith might not look sexy on the field on your 50 inch flat-screen, but he was having one of the most efficient seasons of his career before his concussion. To shift gears and go with a raw rookie when you have a championship caliber roster takes serious cojones. Clearly it's paid off as there has been no dropoff in any of  the advanced stat categories and subsequently created a whole new dimension that defenses have to account for.

The Crux of the Issue

Like most games, this one is likely going to come down to one-on-one match-ups - especially when the Ravens have the ball.  Can Boldin and Smith cut free? Will Ray Rice elude that shutdown linebacking crew? Will Flacco's protection hold up?

This will be one gigantic test for Baltimore's offense. I expect them to get the ball in Ray Rice's hands as much as possible. He really is the oil for this engine. In fact, if Rice can exceed the Vegas player  prop yardage total, they probably win this game.

Much like Eli Manning, no one expects a lot out of Flacco.  At least they didn't coming into these playoffs. I'm sure some of it has to do with their unassuming demeanors, but they've both been wildly inconsistent in their careers. Can Flacco have his moment in the son and walk away a  hero?  Against this defense and this type of coverage, I'm betting no.

Even if you grant the Ravens a statistical bump in certain areas for their playoff run, they still don't match-up well with the 49ers.  They are outmatched on both sides of the ball.

The one thing that Baltimore do have going for them, and it's the most important area to consider, is how they do in those "make-or-break" moments - third down and red zone. Curiously, they match San Fran evenly in those categories on both sides of the ball.  The issue is can their coaches, schemes, and studs get them in favorable spots?  Third and short or third and long?  Touchdowns or field goals? 

Bottom Line

It's one thing to analyze this game in-depth, but it's another story to go overboard. Given the amount of variance in the NFL week to week, one game could easily flip the switch on what we know and  what we've come to expect all season long.  The Ravens are perfect testament to that.  The 49ers meanwhile, are one of the more consistent teams you'll find in the NFL.  You pretty much know what you're going to get, give or take some minor variance.

When I handicap this game I would set the point spread at SF -1.5. Normally this would make it an automatic play on the Ravens because we are getting a spread over the key number of "3".  Yet, when it comes to SF, you have to find that grey inflation area and ask yourself if it's reasonable or not.  Is anything over -3 too much?  Personally I wouldn't bet anything past -4, but with -3.5 available at multiple books there's no excuse not to grab the best number.

It's not a popular choice among the sharp bettors, but I'm fading the Ravens here. They've crushed inflated spreads in the three games leading up to the Super Bowl, but I think the Cinderella story ends in New Orleans.  I'm willing to lay the hook and ride the team built for a championship, not a team that defied ridiculous odds to get there.

NFL Pick: SF -3.5
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