The Ugly Final Fight for the Super Bowl

Both the 49ers and Ravens prevailed Sunday with two late-game comebacks in enemy territory.

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AP/Stephan Savoia

If you followed the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens for the last few seasons, you had the feeling going into yesterday's conference championship games that this was the last chance that both teams had to win the big one. Both teams had endured heartbreaking losses in last year's finals: the Niners to the New York Giants in a game in which they fumbled away two punts, and the Ravens to the New England Patriots in a game in which the receiver dropped a sure touchdown pass in the end zone and their kicker missed a chip-shot field goal that would have sent the game into overtime. You don't lose the conference final two years in a row and then go on to win the Super Bowl in the third year—or so the pundits say.

In any event, the path to the Super Bowl for both teams in 2013 was on the road, in the opponent's home stadium. And both won ugly, with second-half comebacks that hint at a very intriguing Super Bowl. Sunday's matches showed that when the 49ers and Ravens square off against each other, they'll face opponents who in terms of style are radically different—San Francisco features sped and finesse on both sides of the ball while Baltimore has a more old-school approach—but who, in terms of effectiveness, are uncannily similar.

The Niners' comeback was bigger than the Ravens' because their first-half performance was worse. In fact, San Francisco played so poorly in the beginning of the game that it looked like their season was over early in the second quarter. The Atlanta Falcons did their usual thing of streaking off to an early lead—10-0 in the first quarter, 17-0 in the second. It seemed like there was no way they could lose. As it turned out, there was a way, and it was the same way they nearly lost last week to the Seattle Seahawks: sitting on the ball in the last two quarters and allowing a desperate opponent the opportunity to get up off the ground.

The Falcons, with Julio Jones and Roddy White, have faster wide receivers than any team in the league. The 49ers probably have the best defense in the league, but in the first half they simply had no solution to Jones, who four minutes into the game sped past SF's defensive backs for a ridiculously easy 46-yard touchdown. In the second quarter, the Niner defensive backfield for their assignments straight, and it still did no good as Jones outleapt his defender in the left corner of the end zone for a 20-yard pass that made it 14-0 Atlanta.

Jones is probably the most dangerous receiver in the league, and about the only way to beat him is the way San Francisco did it: Pray that the Falcons choose to run the ball on the round instead of throwing to Julio. Coolly, and almost with a sense of inevitability, the Niners clawed their way back from a 17-point deficit (an all-time record for an NFC championship game) with QB Colin Kaepernick, mixing passes and runs. At the half they were down by 10 points, 24-14, and then, taking the ball on the opening kickoff in the second half, they gouged out 82 yards in seven plays to make it 24-21.

Even though Atlanta led by three points and were playing in front of their fans, it seemed like something in them gave way at that point and that they expected to lose. Falcons QB Matt Ryan had been nearly perfect in the first half, completing 18 of 24 for 271 yards and TDs. But in the last half, with the heat on, the man who had come to be known as Mattie Ice turned to slush. This was partly because the Falcons began waiting for obvious passing situations, i.e., third and long, before throwing the ball.

It was also because when Ryan did throw, he made poor choices. In the third quarter he threw behind his receiver and Niners defensive back Chris Culliver intercepted, stopping the Falcons dead after they had marched in 49er territory. As he walked toward the sideline Ryan ripped off his chin strap in disgust and threw his helmet near the bench. It's hard to imagine that his teammates didn't see him lose his cool; surely at this point their confidence in their QB must have begun to erode. A few minutes later, at the start of the fourth period with Atlanta almost in range for a field goal, Ryan, running the shotgun, turned his head and took his eye off the long snap and lost the ball. San Francisco's superb linebacker Aldon Smith recovered at their 37-yard line and the Falcons lost their last serious chance to score. Ryan, though he ended up throwing for 396 yards—163 more than Kaepernick—had found yet another way to lose a football game.

Kaepernick, using the pass sparingly, repeatedly evaded the Falcons pass rush. When the 49ers put five or more men on the line of scrimmage, he picked the Atlanta defense apart, completing 9 of 11 passes for 129 yards on plays in which the Falcons blitzed. At times, Kaepernick looked like a college quarterback, running the option play 13 times, sometimes pitching the ball to Frank Gore and sometimes keeping it himself. On several key plays, though, he simply dropped back into the pocket and fired completions to his All-Pro tight end Vernon Davis.

With 8:23 remaining, the Niners took the lead for the first time when Frank Gore ran straight off tackle for a nine-yard TD. As he had done the week before, Ryan drove the Falcons downfield in the waning seconds of the game, but this time there was no miracle when, at the SF 10-yard line with 1:13 on the clock, linebacker NaVorro Bowman knocked down a pass intended for Roddy White. The 49ers were going to the Super Bowl.

Up in Foxborough, the Baltimore Ravens had a much tougher time against a much tougher opponent. The New England Patriots, who in this era have been almost invincible at home—QB Tom Brady was an incredible 67-0 at home when leading at the half—were up 13-7 at the midpoint and just two quarters away from their sixth Super Bowl. Then, giving way to terrific pressure on offense and defense from the Ravens, they collapsed. There's no other word for it.

Raven QB Joe Flacco often looks like he's throwing a brick instead of a football, and he ripped through the Patriots' defense on three TD drives. The best one was on the Raven's first possession in the second half when, starting from deep in their own territory at the 13, Baltimore tore up 87 yards in 10 plays, capping the drive with a quick, perfectly timed five-yard TD pass to Dennis Pitta.

New England seemed stunned that such a thing could happen to them, and they did almost nothing right on offense or defense the rest of the game. Constantly harassed by Ravens linebacker and future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis, Brady, the NFL's all-time postseason leader in just about every category, threw two interceptions. Flacco, for his part, had none.

The New England crowd sat in stony silence for almost the entire second half until Brady fired up his team for a final drive. It ended with 2:05 left when his pass into the end zone was intercepted by Baltimore cornerback Cary Williams. And that was it—the Ravens won 28-13.

An era that began 12 years ago when the Patriots upset the St. Louis Rams in the 2001 Super Bowl seemed to have finally come to an end. Or at least, so thought one brazen Ravens fan who had made the trip to Foxborough and expressed himself with a large hand-painted sign, "The Ravens Say Never More!"