2012 Season NFL Football Past Picks

February 03, 2013

03

Baltimore vs. San Francisco

Sunday 02/03 06:30 PM Eastern

2 units on Baltimore +5 (-110) (risk 2 to return 2)  RESULT: win

5 units on 1st ¼ UNDER 10 -165 (risk 5 to return 5)  RESULT: push

Many predicted that the San Francisco 49ers would be here this year. They were a very pleasant surprise last season going 13-3 after a 6-10 season the year before. Last season, the Niners fell short of the big game as the Giants took them out in the Conference Finals. This year, San Francisco started off the season with a big road win over Green Bay but stumbled a couple of times early vs. Minnesota and the Giants. They finished the season strong and enter here 13-4-1. This team has a lot of strengths and not many weaknesses.

Baltimore was not really supposed to get here. Yes, they also made it to the Conference Championships last season, losing a heartbreaker to New England. But, the defense was another year older, Ray Lewis looked like he was done, and Joe Flacco just didn't impress most people. The Ravens started the season 9-2 but then had a swoon in which they lost four of their final five games, limping into the playoffs. But since then, this team has dispatched of three playoff teams to make it to the big game. On their way, they won twice as double-digit road dogs - something that has never before been done.

My computer matchup for this game (NOT an official pick) predicts a close 49ers victory. The public so far is backing the Ravens by a small amount. However, most of the public money will be hitting the books this weekend. A lot of things here point to a close game that is tough to call. But, let's dig in to try to predict what will happen in this game...

How many points with the Ravens score? The Ravens offense ranked #10 in points and #15 in yards in the regular season, averaging 24.9 points and 353 yards per game - solid but not earth-shattering. In the playoffs, they have upped the ante, averaging 425 yards and 30 points per game. This offense, which as a ton of weapons in Rice, Boldin, Smith, Pitta, Pierce and Jones, is on the up-tick since Jim Caldwell took over the offensive coordinator duties in week 15. The biggest beneficiaries have been Joe Flacco and Bernard Pierce. Pierce has seen his participation double and as a result, in six games, he has racked up over 400 yards rushing (vs. 300 yards total in 13 games under Cam Cameron). Since week 16, Joe Flacco has thrown 10 touchdowns to no interceptions. Caldwell has balanced this offense. Prior to his taking over, this offense ran 40% of the time and now they run 49% of the time. Forcing defenses to play the run more, Flacco has flourished. Granted, it's only been four games, but Flacco's deep ball has to have become one of the most feared plays by opposing defenses. On throws of 21+ yards downfield, Flacco has completed 54% of his passes under Caldwell (vs. 34% under Cameron). As much flack as Flacco gets, the fact is he's playing as well or better than any other QB right now and he's got a career 8-4 record in the playoffs. In the three playoff games this year, the Ravens offense has faced Von Miller, Elvis Dumerville, Vince Wilfork, Dwight Freeney and Dwight Mathis. Despite that, this offensive line allowed just four sacks in those three games. When facing defenses similar to San Francisco's this season (i.e. elite defenses), Baltimore averaged 22 points per game. So, they have shown that even against great defenses, the points can be had (ask Denver). But, San Francisco has a great defense and could shut down the Ravens, right? Well anything is possible. But, let's look at how good this Niners' defense really is. Are they really great? It depends who they are playing. Against weak offenses, this 49ers defense was very stout this season. When playing against offenses in the bottom half of the leage, the Niners allowed just 8.0 points per game. But, when playing against offenses in the top half of the league, they allowed 25.6 points per game. They allowed 24+ points six times and in two playoffs games, they allowed 27.5 per game. San Francisco's red zone defense was one of the worst in the league this season, allowing 60% opponent TD percentage. Only five defense were worse than that. That could spell trouble here given that the Ravens were ranked 5th best in the league in converting red zone opportunities into touchdowns. In the end, I think it's fair to question the label of "elite" for this Niners defense. A lot of signs point towards it being mediocre, especially vs. teams that can score. To get a bit more specific, when the Niners faced teams this season with an offense similar to Baltimore's, San Francisco allowed an average of 24.5 points per game. So, it seems like a pretty good estimate to assume that Baltimore should score between 22-27 points in this game. It may be on the lower end of that if you believe SF's defense really is great. Or, it may be on the higher end of that if you believe Baltimore's offensive improvement since Caldwell took over as OC will continue to play out positively for them in this game. My best guess for Baltimore in this game would be 24 to 27 points.

How many points with the 49ers score? San Francisco's offense was ranked very close to Baltimore's overall this season - 11th in the league in scoring (24.8) and yards (362). Since Colin Kaepernick took over in week 11, the Niners offense has improved to 28.6 points per game. This offense has a lot of weapons with Gore, Crabtree, Davis and Moss. And of course there is always the huge threat of Colin Kaepernick running the ball. This season when the 49ers faced a defense similar to Baltimores' (ranked #12 in points allowed), San Francisco averaged 24.1 points. But with Kaepernick at the helm, they averaged 32 points per game to defenses like Baltimore's. When facing offenses similar to San Francisco's, the Ravens this season allowed an average of 26.5 points per game. However, recently since Baltimore's defense has improved late in the season, the Ravens have had five straight good or great offenses to an average of 21.5 points per game. While San Francisco's red zone defense was one of the worst in the league this season, Baltimore's was one of the best. In fact, only one other offense kept opposing teams out of the end zone better than Baltimore who allowed just 43% opponent TD success inside the 20. San Francisco's red zone offense was average this season (ranked 15th), so expect that the Niners may end up kicking field goals a bit more than some expect. And, of course there is the "Ray Lewis" factor. Since returning to the lineup, Baltimore has kept three high-powered offenses down. Indianapolis managed just 9 points. Denver scored 35 but 14 of those poitns came on special teams. And, the number one offense in the league (NE) scored just 13 and was completley shut out in the second half. Lewis brings a big motivational lift to this team but it's not only that. He's not just been a figurehead. In the three games since his return, Lewis has notched 13, 17 and 14 tackles. It could be that his injury was a net positive for the Ravens as his legs are much fresher in the playoffs than they would have been otherwise. In the end, it seems to me that the 49ers will likely score around 24 to 31 points. If the Ravens don't have an answer for Kaepernick, then it will be on the high end of that range. The read-option is very tough to defend. Will two weeks to prepare for it help? Only time will tell. But, keep in mind that as much hype as it's receiving, Kaepernick has really only had one game where he went crazy with his legs. He destroyed Green Bay with his running, but let's keep that in perspective. The Packers run defense was never very good (ask Adrian Peterson). If you take out that game (one in which GB was obviously ill-prepared), Kaepernick's rushing numbers are not that remarkable. The last three weeks, this Ravens defense stimied Luck, Manning and Brady. If Baltimore continues to play inspired defense like they have for the past month and half, it could be on the low end of that range. My best guess for San Francisco in this game is about 27 points.

So, my prediction on this game is that it is close. The defenses are similar and San Francisco has a slight edge on offense, maybe. If the Ravens really do continue to play as they have since Jim Caldwell took over the offense, then these offense are really close too. Because of this, I think this line is off by a point or two. I think a fair line is closer to San Francisco -2.5. I know the oddsmakers put the line where they need it to be. If they installed San Francisco as a favorite of less than a field goal, they would struggle mightily to attract enough money on the Ravens.

But here is where we get our value. With the Ravens, we get a team that could win this game outright. Even if they don't win, they can lose a close game by 3 or less, which results in ATS win. The only scenario that results in a Niners spread cover is one in which they win by more than a field goal. So if there are three possible outcomes:

1. Ravens win outright
2. Ravens lose by 1 to 4 points
3. 49ers win by 5 or more points

Only one of those three scenarios results in an ATS loss on the Ravens. Do you feel that scenario number 3 above has more than 50% chance vs. the other two combined? I tend to think not.

One concern for the Ravens has to be the stretch from week 12-16 in which they went 1-4 straight-up and against the spread. Were the Ravens really that bad then? Let's consider who they played: Pittsburgh, Washington, Denver, New York Giants, Cincinnati. Pittsburgh was a good team this season and always gives Baltimore fits. Cincinnati was in the midst of a run in which they were playing better than anyone, winning eight of nine at the end of the regular season. The Giants owned one of the best offenses in the league this season and Washington and Denver were playoff teams. In those five games, the Ravens lost the turnover battle 7-4, making it hard to win. And, of those four losses, only one was a big loss and that came at the hands of a red-hot Denver team. The other three losses were by a total of 12 points. So, once we dig in, that "horrible" stretch turns out to not be so terrible.

The higher seed in the Super Bowl is 1-13-2 ATS the past sixteen years. Teams that have had to play an extra playoff game to get here are 9-1-1 ATS the past eleven years. In the last 20 Super Bowls that featured a team off an upset win as an underdog, the underdog has carried that momentum in, going 13-6-1 ATS. If the team is off back-to-back upset wins, they are 7-1-1 ATS.

If Colin Kaepernick gets lose early and often here, then the Niners can certainly win this game by a touchdown or more. But, there is too much pointing towards the Ravens. Even if San Francisco wins a close game, we get the ATS win with the Ravens. I like how Baltimore is playing. If they can win in Denver, and New England, they can certainly win here on a neutral field. Take the Ravens plus the points (at +3.5 or greater).



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