The National Football League requires its fans to wait two full weeks after the conclusion of its conference playoffs for the Super Bowl to take place. This is an ungodly amount of time that far exceeds the corresponding waiting periods in other sports. Consequently the media had to produce its usual trivial controversies and human interest stories, since the alternative would have been a lot of dead air and blank space. The result, as intended by the NFL in its insatiable quest for publicity, was a ridiculous spectacle, and it was a relief when the game day arrived and attention turned to the events on the field.
Before the game most analysts favored the San Francisco 49ers to beat the Baltimore Ravens, as did the pre-game betting lines (the importance of gambling to the NFL’s popularity is an open secret that no one in the commissioner’s office cares publicly to admit). The analysts generally predicted that, with the defenses being roughly equal, the 49ers would present more problems on offense in regard to matchups through their Pistol formations and their abundance of talent. Despite the evidence the analysts presented to support this notion, however, there were reasons for a 49er fan to be skeptical. In their previous three games, including their two playoff victories, the 49ers had started slowly on offense and needed most of the first quarter to find weaknesses in opposing defenses before beginning to score in earnest. Conversely, the 49er defensive line had given quarterbacks a lot of time in the pocket since defensive tackle Justin Smith injured his elbow against the New England Patriots back in December. Unless the 49er coaching staff found a way in their game plan to change this pattern, there was a dangerous possibility that Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco would have time to find Anquan Boldin and other receivers on deep passing routes for long gains and early scores. If that happened, the 49ers were likely to fall behind in the first half, and while deficits hadn’t intimidated them during the regular season and playoffs, the Super Bowl was a different matter, when players and coaches alike were especially prone to desperation and mistakes. If the 49ers were to lose, this seemed to be the most likely way it would happen.
Though it obviously wasn’t my intention, I will say here and now that I called the start of the game almost perfectly. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, the 49ers made too many wrong mistakes, and the Ravens took advantage, capping off their effort with a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to start the second half for a 28-6 lead. While the commentators made much of the half-hour power outage at the Superdome in their attempts to explain the 49ers’ subsequent resurgence, they would have done better in that regard to excoriate Ravens coach John Harbaugh’s play calls on offense. It was obvious that the 49ers couldn’t handle Boldin, who caught Flacco’s passes regardless of defenders putting their hands in his face and fighting for the ball. For the most part, however, John Harbaugh (as opposed to his brother Jim on the 49er sideline) called runs to Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce during the second half in an effort to run down the clock. In other words, he played not to lose, and he nearly handed his brother his first Lombardi Trophy and the sixth for San Francisco. If, on second-and-goal at the five-yard line, the 49ers had put the ball into the end zone at the end of the game as they should have done, John Harbaugh would have been well advised to skip the plane ride home, because Ravens fans would have been waiting to ride him justly out of Baltimore on a rail. Instead the Ravens held on to win, thereby absolving his sins in the aftermath of victory.
Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers will naturally take their defeat hard for a while, but after their requisite mourning period they should remind themselves to be proud of their accomplishment and hopeful for their future. The 49ers are loaded with talent, both on the field and in the front office, and there is no reason to think that they won’t contend for Lombardi Trophies for years to come. After a long dark decade of the soul, the 49ers are fun to watch again, and the NFL universe came within a hair’s breadth of resuming its proper equilibrium. I, for one, will not mourn long. The San Francisco Giants Fan Fest comes next Saturday to AT&T Park, and in just a couple of weeks it will be time for pitchers and catchers to report.