For three years running, rank outsiders have come away with the Super Bowl spoils. The Green Bay Packers stormed to a win despite a 10-6 regular season record and the 9-7 New York Giants swept up perennial favourites New England Patriots a year later. As 10-6 themselves, the Ravens crawled over the post-season line after four losses in their last five games. What does this say for the NFL? While everyone is championing 16-game rushing, receiving, throwing, kicking and winning records, the only statistics which ultimately count lie within the play-offs. It’s a clean slate – Year Zero. Flacco and co. shook off their average tags and rallied to the cause when it truly mattered.
Before the start of the season, Flacco was in that band of quarterbacks who are too good to drop but not someone you’d rely on to deliver the Lombardi Trophy – in essence, signal-caller purgatory. Yet a mind-blowing post-season – in which he threw for 11 touchdowns without an interception – is an astonishing achievement for a player who stands on the brink of free agency. The Ravens are never going to let him go, of course, even if a contract saga does rumble on into the summer. However, no-one can resent the ex-Delaware man for holding out for a few more zeros as the driving force behind his side’s second ever Super Bowl. Still, Flacco stands at a crossroads. One way leads to a place among the elite, while the other points to frustrating Eli Manning-like inconsistency.
Number 52 made another teary, God-thanking speech as the confetti fell in New Orleans, but on the pitch it was another veteran who proved actions are far louder than words. When Reed picked off Colin Kaepernick’s miscued pass, he levelled the all-time post-season interceptions record at nine – setting up a Flacco drive in which Jacoby Jones jinked his way to a 56-yard touchdown. Safeties are an underappreciated bunch in the modern game as their usual capacity is in surveying the field in support roles rather than making monster plays. But Reed is almost magnetised to the pigskin and has an innate ability to sense a quarterback’s thoughts. Perhaps if he was as outspoken as his fellow elder statesman, the attention would surround him. Regardless, you get the feeling that Reed likes it just the way it is.
Kaepernick, 25, came into New Orleans as the third least experienced quarterback to start a Super Bowl. The second-year player was making only his tenth career start for the 49ers in the NFL’s biggest game. Despite coming up short, he did show enough to indicate that he may only yet have scratched the surface of his considerable potential. He went 16/28 for 302 yards, a touchdown and an interception and also ran for 62 yards and a score. Even more impressively, he came within a whisker of leading the 49ers back from a 15 point half-time deficit when no team has come ever come back from more than ten in a Super Bowl. Kaepernick will continue to get better as he gains experience and will be a force to be reckoned with in the NFL next year.
If the old adage of ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger’ has any merit whatsoever then the 49ers are in a good position to get back to this stage again. While this loss is likely to sting San Francisco well into the off-season, the fact remains they will begin next season as a strong candidate to be crowned champions. With one of the NFL’s brightest young coaches, an emerging star at quarterback, a ferocious young defence and one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, the pieces are in place for the 49ers to content for the foreseeable future. Jim Harbaugh has done tremendously well in San Francisco since arriving from Stanford, reaching the NFC Championship game in his first season and the Super Bowl in his second. He will fancy his team’s chances of going one better in 2013.
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BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge
BIOGRAPHY: Kepa Arrizabalaga