While I would have loved to be down by the river, under the lake, below sea level, that's where I stay this weekend ... another year passes and the Jets are not in the game, sigh ... Even so, here's our quick thoughts on each major unit in tonight's game. Have fun and be safe!!!
Ravens Defense -- Much as punk bassist Sid Vicious confessed to New York police in regards to his murder of Nancy Spungeon, this defense is a "dirty dog." Over the course of the season the Ravens plummeted from one of the league's best in 2011 to a middling 2012 defense. The Ravens ranked better against the pass than they did the rush, but the lack of Ray Lewis might have had something to do with that. It's more than fair to say that the unit has greatly benefited from the return of Ray Lewis, a man who is on a mission to seemingly do more than his share to bring this team one more trophy. Even so, Ed Reed and the Ravens defense was a opportunistic group, ranking 6th in the AFC with 25 total takeaways. The unit is firing on all cylinders after a bumpy season and the group was impressively able to put and end to Tom Brady's Patriots yet again. The Ravens ability to stop Frank Gore and stay disciplined and diagnose the Wing T / Pistol / Samurai offense of the Niners will be key in this matchup. A lot of weight will fall in Paul Kruger, Pernell McPhee, and the entire secondary's shoulders.
Ravens Offense -- The big play potential of this offense can be devastating as the Patriots and Broncos both found out in the postseason. Torrey Smith is emerging as one of the league's pre-eminent deep threats and having a big armed QB like Flacco hasn't hurt matters. Always a playmaker, Ray Rice thrives in an environment where the middle can be softened by the play of receivers like Smith and Boldin and Rice can find the soft spot and receive a short pass from Flacco that he can use his speed to make some impressive yards after the catch. While Flacco received a lot of attention based on some of the comments he made about himself this past year, Flacco has been a good quarterback, but only great in fits and starts. Could this game cement his abilities one way or another? I think this game for the Ravens hangs on Flacco's ability to stand up or scramble wisely in the face of the pressure that the Niners are no doubt going to be able to bring.
Ravens Special Teams -- The Ravens have one of the best coverage units in the league and they also have had quite a string of success this season with their return game. This is where the Ravens far outstrip the Niners tonight so don't be surprised if the Ravens can make a few momentum swinging plays off kicks or even their coverage unit.
Niners Defense -- Stifling. Up front this unit is massive and brings a tremendous amount of pressure against any opponent. Whether against the run or the pass, this defense has emerged as one of the greats in the NFL right now. The spot to watch on this defense is going to be the nickel spot. While Chris Culliver was in the headlines this week for all the wrong reasons, but watch to see how he can play the slot against the Ravens ... how he and the safeties fare might be a key to whether or not the Ravens can get the upper hand.
Niners Offense -- Under Alex Smith, this offense has been considered something of a plodder. While Harbaugh and Smith worked well together in their ability to come up with a scheme that fit Smith's style and protected the football, the group has seemingly turned on the turbo boosters with the ascenion of Colin Kaepernick to the starting spot. The Pistol is this year's Wildcat and there is NO WAY that this formation will break the NFL as we know it, but will the Ravens be the team to stop it tonight? And that's the thing about Kaepernick ... he has thrived in a scheme that suits him and Michael Crabtree finally has a quarterback that is letting him emerge as the playmaker we all remember from his college days. Oh and don't forget that this offense also has Vernon Davis and Frank Gore. Ray Lewis is going to have to be a lot of places all at once tonight.
Niners Special Teams -- It's a good thing that the Niners score as many touchdowns as they do, since David Akers was 29-42 over the regular season ... going a brutal 9-19 at 40+. This means that the Niners need to be within 39 yards of the posts to have almost sure things. While weather of course won't be a factor, Akers days in the league are numbered and he in particular is weighing down an otherwise mediocre unit. That said, his leg strength has put more burden on the kickoff coverage units ... something that the Ravens are particularly good at ... be aware of that.
Prediction: It's hard to not factor in the Ray Lewis runaway train momentum that is carrying the Ravens, but I think that the Niners are the better overall team, but the key is Kaepernick not cracking in the spotlight. Should that happen, the Niners could end up playing a close game but running away with it by the end. Niners 34 -- Ravens 24