Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Everybody loves Raymond. Right? Especially this week. Especially on these pages.
Only he's not quite Raymond. He's Ray. Ray Anthony Lewis, but it's close enough, Goddammit.
Lewis's (back)story is and has been but one to be scrutinised since his Ravens booked their place in Super Bowl XLVII, but one I won't be dwelling upon here. It's too murky, too grubby and doesn't look pretty in print or pink. I write ‘his Ravens' because they are and it doesn't seem to flatter him. I invite debate on that score because Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs are more influential on the playing field, but Lewis is the heartbeat, the talisman, the undisputed leader of the defense. Of the whole team.
Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees (each of whom boast at least one championship ring) have ‘their' teams and it's an exclusive band that Russell Wilson looks destined to become a part of. Richard Sherman may be on lead vocals, but Wilson will provide the rhythm and the tempo (and his army of friends will make him buddy rich). Not a bad name that, Wilson, to possess when mulling over matters on the west coast of America with a musical connotation.
Clearly, and unashamedly, I digress from matters Super Bowl, but I had to somehow crowbar Wilson into this post in a context that isn't associated with Pistol and read-option offenses. Job done. On to N'Awlins.
So, how you all been? Bit up and down, I guess, but more up hopefully than on the morning of January 14. Those of you who read my Falcons preview on Divisional Playoff weekend (and once again, I must thank you both) may recall that January 13 just happened to be my birthday, but never in my 41 years (allowing for not having birthday memories before the age of, say, eight) have I woken up on January 14 wishing my birthday had never happened.
As diabolical as I felt during the hours after the 30-28 reversal to Atlanta, reading about it the next day was unparalleled misery. However, as was noted all over Field Gulls throughout the ensuing week, this is the brightest it's possible to feel after a loss so dispiriting. Seattle is a desirable destination for free agents, we're a young, highly skilled, hungry team and we have the Draft to further bolster what is already a young, highly skilled...you know where I'm going with this.
Lamentably, with the Super Bowl upon us, events necessitate this to be a Seahawks-free post and exacerbating that is the need to write about, of all teams, the San Francisco 49ers; I've not wanted a team to lose a Super Bowl this badly since February 5, 2006. However, all bias aside (an almost impossible task), do the Niners represent value against the spread?
As soon as the Ravens iced the W in Foxboro two weeks ago, San Fran opened as a 5 point favourite, a line that was quickly bet down to 3.5 and one that's remained largely intact, bar the fact that the Ravens are available +4 at Boylesports.com as I write this on Wednesday evening.
I've recently introduced the musings of one Walter Cherepinsky to these proceedings and it'd be otiose of me to omit him this week, of all weeks. Walter runs walterfootball.com and is, to me, as intriguing as the script for ‘Episode VII' and despite him enduring a diabolical streak on the first two weekends of the playoffs, I was visiting his site daily. It's difficult not to despite him not being to everybody's taste.
Ol' Walt does a fine line in self-deprecation and never, ever did he demonstrate this more adroitly than when addressing his betting demons before Championship Game weekend with this: 'Yeah, I stink. I admitted as much two weeks ago when I said, "I don't know what the hell I'm doing" and "I'm at a loss. My confidence is completely shaken. Like I said, if I pick one team, I know the other will cover. I just know it."'
Walt takes Baltimore +3.5 yet his pick isn't what caught my eye. Far from it. No, what he gives us is a couple of superlative stats, veritable golden tickets for those unsure whether to take the plunge on the underdog Ravens on Sunday. Here goes:
1...The team that is the better seed (if applicable) is 1-12-2 ATS in the Super Bowl since 1996.
2...Teams that played in the wild card round and advanced to the Super Bowl are 7-0 ATS since 2003.
(Lump on Baltimore, it seems. What can possibly go wrong...?)
I can't get enough of information like that and to tip my hat to our partners at oddsshark.com (Ravens +3.5), they offer us these trends:
1...The underdog is 8-3 ATS in the past 11 Super Bowls
2...NFC is 4-1 SU and 5-0 ATS in the past 5 Super Bowls
3...49ers are 8-1-1 SU in their last 10 games as the favourite
While all of these lines appeal to the traditional bettor, the prop bets available are both incalculable and a mite irresistible. To list even half would be folly so I'll include some examples here, considering both the sublime and the ridiculous:
*Which Harbaugh brother will be shown first during the game? EVENS (or 1-1) while a split screen shot is 4-1/Will any player on the respective active rosters be arrested before the game? Yes 5-1/Will Beyonce be joined by Jay-Z on stage during the Half Time Show? Yes 11-10, No 2-3/Will any player be flagged for excessive celebration in the game? Yes 9-4, No 2-7/Race to 10 points...Ravens 11-10, 49ers 5-7, Neither 30-1.
That's the briefest of snapshots to how crazy the betting world becomes during Super Bowl week and there's not much you can't bet on. I may partake in a couple of the more sporting prop bets on offer and quite like the value available for *Bernard Pierce to score the first touchdown at 20-1. Sure, he's hardly the trendy pick, but it's an attractive price, especially for a couple of quid just for the purposes of interest.
One not-so-innocuous event on Super Bowl Sunday that does generate considerable interest is the coin toss. Prior to last year when the New England Patriots won the flip, the NFC had won the toss for 14 Super Bowls in a row, a remarkably ridiculous occurrence. *The odds on each team this year? The same for both, as it is for heads or tails. Naturally.
*All odds courtesy of oddsshark.com
What's honestly not to like about Baltimore on Sunday? Why isn't it the height of taking advantage of someone's philanthropic nature being able to bet on the Ravens while receiving a four point cushion? They're fresh off breaking the hearts of two future first ballot Hall of Fame quarterbacks, leaving behind, in Denver and Foxboro, desires of what might have been accomplished in New Orleans this Sunday. And therein lies the rub. Baltimore went up against the Broncos and Patriots, in their respective opponents' backyards and not only covered the spread, but disposed of each SU playing tough, physical football. If they covered the spread with comparative ease in Denver (+9), they positively smashed the spread into oblivion in Foxboro (+8).
The 49ers are cut from the same cloth and what awaits us on Sunday could materialise into a battle of attrition. The mere mention of that word is known to precipitate agitation amongst football fans, particularly those raised in a time when the thought of a running back being taken first overall in the Draft is anathema.
For my money, give me a game of smashmouth football Monday to Sunday. (Hmmm, perhaps that should be Sunday to Sunday).
Anyhow, I'd just turned 17 when our beloved 49ers took on the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII in Miami and sat mesmerised as the curtain descended on the opening two quarters with the score tied at 3-3, the first half time tie in Super Bowl history. Should anything remotely similar unfold on Sunday, there'll be nobody happier than yours truly.
I wrote above, somewhat glibly, of the Ravens going this deep into the playoffs by virtue of playing tough, physical football. Evidence of just how tough, how physical, was borne out in the AFC Championship Game, backed up by two startling stats.
New England boasted the highest scoring offense during the regular season, scoring 557 points over 16 games (34.8 PPG), yet Baltimore, who statistically ranked 17th against the pass and 20th against the run, blanked them 21-0 in the second half. In addition, the Patriots scored 1 touchdown on 5 possessions inside the Ravens' 25 yard line. However, they aren't the two startling stats. No, what's more astonishing is:
Before the AFC Championship, New England held a 72-1 record at home under Bill Belichick when leading at half time and 67-0 when Tom Brady had been his QB. Thus, their 13-7 lead at the half made them the most cast iron certainties since Goliath. You know the rest. And what's truly mind blowing, not to mention utterly majestic is...
...only twice in NFL postseason history has a team won when the opposition's run 87 plays against them. When do you suppose that happened? What if I told you that it was against the Ravens by both the Colts and Broncos during this very postseason. To then go to New England and win by 15 points when the Patriots ran a further 82 plays will prove to San Francisco that these Baltimore Ravens simply don't tire and they'd have had two weeks' rest come kickoff on Sunday.
The Niners will look to pound the ball on the Ravens and a darn sight more than Denver or New England managed (I can't include the Colts here as they didn't truly test the AFC Champion despite the aforementioned 87 plays they ran).
San Fran will doubtless look to utilise the Pistol formation, an offensive strategy that's been analysed and addressed quite wonderfully on Field Gulls and SB Nation these past few weeks by, amongst others, Danny and Chris B. Brown. I couldn't even wish to equal their dissection, suffice to say that, according to NFL research (and Danny has already brought you these figures), the 49ers operated out of the Pistol 45.3 percent of the time against the Packers and 54.9 percent of the time against the Falcons.
Considering that the Niners ran just five option plays (8.9 percent) against the Seahawks in Week 16, it appears that the 42-13 shellacking they received in Seattle helped shape their offensive philosophy once the playoffs rolled around. It's nigh on impossible to imagine that they won't be somewhere near the 40 percent mark against Baltimore unless, of course, that's what they want the Ravens to believe. If any coach in the NFL should know Jim Harbaugh's coaching idiosyncrasies, *it's his brother John so, Seattle (and you Baltimore) fans everywhere will watch in hope that John The Raven has helped prepare his defense for every eventuality, half through necessity and half through instinct.
*Pete Carroll can also lay fair claim to knowing Jim the Niner's coaching foibles better than anybody.
Upon researching this a little more, Jim began his ‘if-it-wasn't-for-you-pesky-kids' routine last Sunday when declaring that he "wouldn't categorise" Colin Kaepernick as a read-option quarterback.
Jim, as a Seahawk, I'm far from your biggest fan and that will only ever change should you eventually replace Carroll in Seattle, but, begrudgingly, I admire the job you've done in San Francisco as two deep playoff runs in consecutive seasons (particularly with Alex Smith under center for most of it) is fine work. However, even I, as a damn Limey who adores this sport from afar, would safely categorise Kaepernick as a read-option quarterback. He just is. And he's pretty, pretty, pretty good at it.
John, he's using an old Jedi mind trick. His mind powers shouldn't work on you.
The focus lavished upon Kaepernick shouldn't surprise anybody and Russell Wilson would've invited exactly the same level of scrutiny had the Seahawks prevailed in the NFC playoffs.
The quarterback on the opposite side was flying somewhat under the radar in comparison despite throwing for eight touchdowns and zero interceptions during the postseason. Until his old man chimed in.
Spectacularly, Steve Flacco, Joe's father, chose this week to deliver an odd aside to the New York Times when saying of his son, "Joe is dull. As dull as he's portrayed in the media, he's that dull. He is dull." Should that have been Steve's attempt at a motivational masterstroke, then I admire his chutzpah, but Joe's already come out fighting it seems, opting to use the term "retarded" when discussing the NFL's decision to play Super Bowl XLVIII in New Jersey next February, placing players at the mercy of the elements.
Any opprobrium directed Joe's way is probably understandable, but let's forgive him his flippancy on this occasion.
Commandeering an offense that toppled those marshaled by Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, Flacco's thus far defied every one of his critics and it's to his eternal credit to have got this far; he possesses the required nous to circumnavigate San Francisco's defense, as good as they are. Flacco's far from alone though and his supporting cast at running back enables him to set up nicely the play-action pass, where Torrey Smith then comes into his own.
Ray Rice is, naturally, the workhorse back, but complementing him is rookie Bernard Pierce, a player I like a lot. Pierce offers a nice change of pace and after averaging 4.9 YPA on 108 carries during the regular season, didn't shirk his duties when called upon during the playoffs, averaging a further 6.3 YPC. He was barely used against the Broncos, but Rice had a big game that day and carried the ground game for 131 yards on 30 carries in Denver.
Pierce's play was highlighted in the win over the Patriots when, with 2:32 left in the third quarter, the Ravens faced 3rd & 2 at New England's 36 yard line. Pierce took the ball 9 yards to the Patriots' 25, whereupon Phil Simms said, "What a set of eyes this Pierce has." The piercing kind, I'm guessing, Phil.
As of Saturday morning here in London, precisely 36 hours from kickoff, Baltimore's still available +4, a line I'm betting on as the Ravens have everything they need to win this from scratch. It won't be easy to watch for those with money riding on the AFC representative, but when is it ever in the NFL? OK, some games are easy, but only in hindsight and if you were to go back to wild card weekend, it's amazing to consider how many experts, journalists or even expert journalists had the Bengals primed to leave Baltimore with the W and head on to the Divisional round.
The unpredictability surrounding games is but one reason I love the NFL and betting on the NFL. There's a myriad amount of reasons to lament the end of the Super Bowl and thus the end of the season and not being able to bet on football for another seven months is right up there.
Both the head and the heart find the allure of the Ravens too much to resist on Sunday, but if the 49ers do end up the world champion, it'll only spur on the Seahawks even more next season and that's about all we can ask for should the Lombardi trophy head west.
Please gamble responsibly, for the final time this season. It's been an absolute pleasure.