By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)
It looked bleak for a long time – even longer with an unusual power outage – but the golden age of Super Bowls stayed alive with a thrilling second-half comeback attempt from the San Francisco 49ers.
The last 10 Super Bowls have featured a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity after only 10 of the first 31 did.
This was a year of noteworthy comebacks for the Ravens and 49ers, with both playing in the season’s most exciting games. San Francisco held off the Patriots after blowing a 28-point lead in Week 15, while the 49ers erased a 17-point deficit in the NFC Championship, and stopped Matt Ryan in the red zone. Baltimore pulled off that mind-blowing comeback in Denver in the AFC Divisional round.
The only fitting end to Super Bowl XLVII would be another historic rally, but this time the roles were reversed, and the Ravens took advantage of San Francisco’s weaknesses to secure a 34-31 win. After one comeback win all season, the 49ers just could not close the game five yards short of the end zone.
Older brother beats little brother in the HarBowl, and it was the continued struggles on third down (2-of-9) and in the red zone (2-of-6) that did Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers in this time. The 49ers also lost the turnover battle (-1), which is a rare disadvantage for them.
For one final game recap of the 2012 season, we are going to start with the first kickoff all the way through the last, as including the pre-kick means talking about Alicia Keys, which would push this to over 6,000 words…at…her…pace.
Here is how it all went down on a wild night in New Orleans.
First quarter: Spirited competition
It was a very poor start for the 49ers out of the pistol formation as Colin Kaepernick’s crisp throw for a 20-yard gain to Vernon Davis was wiped out because of Davis lining up in an illegal formation. You would think two weeks to prepare would give you a flawless first play.
Two plays later Kaepernick, in just his 10th career start, might as well have been faking the ball to Manti Te’o’s girlfriend, and the confusion resulted in a mistimed, incomplete pass to Delanie Walker. Facing 3rd-and-15, the 49ers just safely ran it with Frank Gore for three yards and a three-and-out start.
Jacoby Jones immediately made his presence felt as he returned the punt for 17 yards, and Joe Flacco was able to start at his own 49, which is much better than Baltimore’s average field position (25.78) this postseason.
Flacco threw incomplete on a 3rd-and-9 pass, but Ahmad Brooks was offsides, resulting in another crack at it. Anquan Boldin continued his great postseason by making the 49ers pay with a 13-yard touchdown on a similar play to one of his scores in New England two weeks ago. Baltimore was already up 7-0 in just 4:24.
Kaepernick settled down with two running plays, including just his fourth quarterback draw of the season. After a 7-yard scramble, CBS’ Phil Simms, who had another rough day, said “he’s more dangerous as a scrambler than he is when they run all the zone-read plays.”
Really, Phil? You had two weeks to prepare for this game. This is what Kaepernick did on the ground coming into the Super Bowl:
Colin Kaepernick's 2012 Running Plays (Including Playoffs)
Type of run
Scramble on pass play
Kaepernick hit a 20-yard pass to Davis, which shook up Ed Reed in the process. But now at the BAL 8, the 49ers showed their red zone struggles against a Baltimore defense that was No. 2 in the regular season at preventing touchdowns in the red zone.
Under pressure, Kaepernick had Michael Crabtree wide open for a touchdown, but the throw was too hard and high, missing the scoring opportunity. Kaepernick was buried on a quick sack by Paul Kruger, who got an incredible jump off the ball to force David Akers to successfully kick a 36-yard field goal.
Facing a 3rd-and-7, Flacco was pressured from a blitz and did a masterful job to escape and throw a pass to Boldin for 30 yards down the right sideline. He beat Chris Culliver, who had a rough week with his anti-gay comments, and a comparably rough night in pass defense.
But the drive did eventually stall when Flacco was sacked on third down, which was the final play of the quarter. It forced a punt as the sack took away any shot at a long field goal attempt.
Second quarter: Ravens stun rattled 49ers
Kaepernick came out firing on target to Davis for two catches that gained 40 yards. Davis went over 100 yards for the fourth time in five career playoff games, tying Keith Jackson for the most such games by a tight end in playoff history. Davis’ 104 yards tie Cincinnati’s Dan Ross for the most ever by a tight end in a Super Bowl. Fittingly that game was San Francisco’s first Super Bowl in the 1981 season.
But after two good runs, Oregon rookie back LaMichael James tried to get something out of a play that was going nowhere, and Baltimore rookie Courtney Upshaw delivered a blow to force a crucial fumble the Ravens recovered at the 25.
Baltimore’s rookie back Bernard Pierce showed proper ball security, converting a 3rd-and-1 situation to keep the drive going. Jim Caldwell was making sure everyone got involved as even tight end Ed Dickson juggled a pass for 23 yards before making another catch for 14 yards.
Down at the 1-yard line, Flacco used play action to get Dennis Pitta open for a strike in the end zone. Pitta’s first career touchdown was the game-winner in last Thanksgiving’s HarBowl. Things were looking shaky for the 49ers at this point as history was ganging up on them.
These are the 11 Super Bowls where a team erased a deficit of at least 8 points, regardless of final outcome:
Largest Deficits Erased in Super Bowl History (8+ Points)
With only two teams (1987 Redskins and 2009 Saints) able to come back from a 10-point deficit to win, the 49ers were in the danger zone. The game looked to be slipping away when Kaepernick returned with a horrendous throw to Randy Moss that was again too hard and high. It was easily intercepted by Reed, who tied a postseason record with his ninth interception, and returned to the SF 38.
Ray Rice finally made an impact with a 3rd-and-4 conversion on a short pass that he turned into a 7-yard gain. Boldin nearly tipped a ball into an interception, but it hit the ground. Flacco overthrew the relatively quiet Torrey Smith (two catches on six targets for 35 yards) in the end zone, but John Harbaugh had a trick up his sleeve.
On 4th-and-9 at the SF 14, Harbaugh went for the fake field goal, which is a very aggressive move in this situation with an easy three points available. Dickson was unable to get a good block on Patrick Willis, who made rookie kicker Justin Tucker slow down, and he was tackled a yard short of the first down.
Hard to defend this call when nine yards are needed, but it probably would have worked with a better block.
After Kaepernick nearly had a pick six by Cary Williams while targeting Moss again, the 49ers tried to hide their young quarterback with a run on 3rd-and-10 to force another three-and-out drive. It was the young players, James and Kaepernick, who looked rattled on the big stage in the second quarter.
Flacco threw incomplete twice to bring up the two-minute warning, which set up a big 3rd-and-10 play. Flacco stepped up in the pocket, and with some flashbacks to Denver, Jones was wide open deep, fell down to make the catch, was not touched, wisely got up and made two players (including Culliver) miss for an incredible 56-yard touchdown.
It is only the third time in Flacco’s 93-game career he threw three touchdown passes in the first half, and the first since the game that Cam Cameron was fired after (Washington in Week 14).
This is hard to believe, but Flacco has completed one of the greatest postseasons in NFL history. Flacco’s 11 touchdowns tie a postseason record shared by Joe Montana (1989) and Kurt Warner (2008). Flacco’s 126 attempts without an interception is a single postseason record. Drew Brees previously held the mark with 102 attempts in 2009.
Most Touchdown Passes in Single Postseason
If that’s not enough, then there is this fact: Flacco is the only quarterback to ever have four games in one postseason with a passer rating over 100.0.
Will this sustain itself into next year? Hard to say, but it was definitely a hell of a time to have the hottest streak of your career with the playoffs coming and a new contract.
The 49ers had to be stunned with the inability to slow down Flacco, but still had 1:45 to work with. We seen the Steelers in this situation two years ago against Green Bay, down 21-3 and Ben Roethlisberger led a touchdown drive before halftime to keep it close.
Simms said this is where Kaepernick needed to be “super conservative” despite the 18-point deficit in the Super Bowl, and with the Ravens receiving the second-half kickoff. Okay, Phil.
A roughing-the-passer penalty on Haloti Ngata helped San Francisco’s cause, as did Ngata’s injury later in the game that knocked him out. Good passes to the tight ends moved the ball back into the red zone, but once again the 49ers struggled there. Gore carried for no gain and after scrambling around, Kaepernick just went down for a cheap sack on third down. Akers had to come back out for another field goal, and San Francisco trailed 21-6 at halftime.
Sure, the 2006 Colts were in this situation when they came back to beat the Patriots for the greatest championship game comeback ever. But they were receiving the ball to start the half. The 49ers just had the second biggest comeback win two weeks ago, so it was extremely unlikely they could complete another here.
Or was it?
Third quarter: Delay of game gives this one new life
After the long halftime show, any hope of a comeback all but disappeared when Jones returned the kickoff from deep in his end zone for a record-tying 108-yard touchdown right down the middle of the field. Originally it was ruled to be 109 yards, which would be the record, but it was changed to 108 yards.
Still, the stunning return put Baltimore up 28-6. Only two players in NFL history have multiple touchdowns of 105+ yards, and both are Ravens: Jacoby Jones (3 this year) and Ed Reed (2).
Jones finished with a Super Bowl-record 290 all-purpose yards and two huge touchdowns. He was definitely deserving of the MVP award, but a lot of Ravens had big nights too.
After Kaepernick was sacked, a strange thing happened: the power mysteriously went out in the Superdome. This delay would last 34 minutes, and without social media like Twitter, it probably would have been the most insufferable Super Bowl ever with such a long delay. Who wants to sit around to see the rest of a blowout?
But it was an entertaining time as Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann followed up his “Danny Woodcock” moment from a televised preview of the 2010 playoffs with this perfectly placed typo-tweet of the night on Twitter:
The run of great Super Bowls looked dead, but this moment could have saved the night. Instead the game finally did resume, and the 49ers were faced with a tough 3rd-and-13 conversion. Kaepernick had to check down short and the 49ers punted. CBS said it was 84 minutes of real time in between plays for Flacco’s offense.
Baltimore punted after four plays, passing up a 4th-and-1 at their own 44. Sure, a 28-6 lead sounds safe, but the aggressive move would be to go for the first down. Kaepernick started with two scrambles for 20 yards, then finally converted a third down with the first catch by Moss. But the 49ers had to burn a crucial timeout.
After an 18-yard gain to Davis, Crabtree caught another bullet, broke the tackles and went a total of 31 yards for the touchdown. Despite the bad interception and another near pick, Kaepernick was actually throwing the ball very well, but the daunting 28-6 lead from Baltimore covered up much of this. Anyone thinking Alex Smith should have entered the game did not know what they were watching.
Now it was 28-13 and we still had a game. The ensuing drive was a three-and-out, which is exactly what the defense needed with a third-down sack of Flacco. A big 32-yard punt return by Ted Ginn put the ball at the BAL 20, which is incredible field position. After a 14-yard pass to Davis, Gore took the handoff on a well-designed play and scored the touchdown. This is when Ngata went down with his injury, and at a critical time with the Ravens now only leading 28-20.
Just two plays later Rice took a pass from Flacco, but fumbled the ball from the punch by Tarell Brown. That is Rice’s third lost fumble this postseason, and he has a serious fumbling issue in his postseason career that is hard to explain.
Ray Rice Career Fumble Rates
With another golden opportunity at the BAL 24, Kaepernick overthrew Davis deep. Two plays later Kaepernick’s pass intended for Ginn was defended away by Williams, basically forcing a three-and-out field goal attempt. A big story coming into the game, sure enough Akers missed the 39-yard attempt wide left. But a crucial penalty for running into the kicker gave Akers another shot, and this time he was good from 34 yards away.
In just 5:27, San Francisco turned a 28-6 deficit into a 28-23 deficit. Was it the power outage? That did not cause missed tackles of Crabtree or Rice to fumble, but it certainly gave the 49ers a chance to calm their nerves and fix some problems.
Desperately needing a drive, Jones took a huge shot on the kick return that almost made you think the Ravens had yet another giveaway, but he held on. Speaking of ball security, the Ravens turned to Pierce in the backfield, but it was a 30-yard pass (24 YAC) from Flacco to Boldin on 3rd-and-3 that moved the ball into 49ers’ territory.
On the last play of the quarter, Pierce picked up eight yards on 3rd-and-1, though he did injure himself. The teams were setting up a classic fourth quarter which seemed very unlikely after the way the third quarter began, which felt like ages ago.
Fourth quarter: All the right ingredients, but minus the execution
Now it was San Francisco’s turn to tighten up in the red zone. Rice was stopped at the 1-yard line, then looking for a fourth touchdown, Flacco was pressured and had to throw the ball away. Tucker connected on the 19-yard field goal to take a 31-23 lead.
The team with the 1-0-1 record at comeback opportunities this year needed a second to claim the championship. The big plays were there with a 32-yard catch by Moss followed by a solid 21-yard run from Gore. Back in the red zone where Baltimore has been so good, Kaepernick took matters into his own hands, first running for three yards on a designed run.
But when Baltimore sent seven pass-rushers after Kaepernick, he simply moved to his left and raced into the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown; the longest ever by a quarterback in the Super Bowl.
Two weeks should be plenty of time to come up with the perfect two-point conversion play, but the 49ers could only muster a shoddy attempt into the end zone against the blitz that sailed well past Moss as a harmless incompletion. Now it was 31-29, which means the dreaded Akers could come into the equation.
Baltimore would put together the kind of critical drive a championship team engineers, though it would not finish with a game-clinching touchdown. It was nearly a three-and-out drive before Culliver grabbed Smith and was flagged 14 yards for pass interference.
After Boldin was given a generous spot and Jim Harbaugh successfully challenged, the Ravens went with a ballsy audible on 3rd-and-1, and Flacco went downfield to Boldin, who snatched the ball out of the air like he has all postseason for 15 yards.
That’s bold when you only need a yard, and that was Boldin on the night, another deserving MVP selection for Baltimore.
Rice gained 12 yards on the ground, but the 49ers stiffened. Not one but two 49ers were clearly offsides on third down, but the Ravens still went with a pass play on a 3rd-and-2. The ball was on target to Pitta, but it squirted out low and was incomplete.
Would this be another critical drop to doom the Ravens in the postseason? Tucker made the 38-yard field goal, and now the 49ers knew they would need the touchdown, and had plenty of time (4:19) to drive the required 80 yards.
This is what we wanted to see from Kaepernick all year, even if he was not up against the clock. Could he do a long drive late in the game to put his team ahead with such little relative experience? We know the Baltimore defense has let down far more than their reputation demands in these situations over the years, so this was going to be dramatic.
Kaepernick scrambled for an 8-yard gain to pick up the initial first down of the drive. Davis just had a pass go off his fingertips around the BAL 25. It is a catch you have to make, but the 49ers would overcome the drop. Crabtree was open over the middle for a 24-yard gain as he finished with 109 yards. Kaepernick was now up to 302 yards passing, which is a career high.
But he needed 307. Gore nearly made the game-winning run, picking up 33 yards, but Reed got enough of him to force Gore out of bounds. Now it was 1st-and-goal at the BAL 7, and it would come down to a goal-line stand.
Earlier this week we looked at the 49ers’ poor job at situational offense. Last season they were 30th in red zone touchdown percentage, and this season the 49ers ranked 21st. The numbers were actually better when Smith was starting.
James got the carry out of the pistol on first down, picking up two yards as the clock went down to the two-minute warning. Five yards away, the 49ers had three shots at potential glory.
Going with the sprint-right option, which Joe Montana used to start his postseason legacy, the Ravens defended it perfectly. Had Kaepernick made a quick decision to scramble, he may have had something, but it was a pass all the way and Kaepernick’s forced throw was incomplete to Crabtree.
Another critical moment came when the play clock was running down, and the play was for Kaepernick to run by design, but it was blown dead for a timeout, which would be costly at this stage of the game. Instead of something creative, it was a short throw to the right that would have gained maybe two yards, but Crabtree was hit hard and lost control of the ball for an incompletion.
The 49ers got to this game by stopping Matt Ryan in a similar situation, and now they would have to convert on 4th-and-5 at the BAL 5 to win this game.
With the Super Bowl on the line, you need your absolute best play call. That would definitely not be a low-percentage fade into the end zone, especially with a look like this, which looks like pass interference as the ball is in the air.
Now there was a lot of contact from Jimmy Smith on Crabtree, but referees are afraid to use their flag in these game-deciding moments. That’s a proven fact. But if you want good proof that this was probably pass interference, Phil Simms thought it was a good non-call. The Captain rests his case.
According to ESPN, Kaepernick was just 1-of-8 on passes thrown into the end zone this postseason, which speaks to the problems this offense has down there. No-call aside, the pass still had little chance of being completed, and the red zone play-calling was atrocious in this game.
San Francisco gained 468 yards on just 60 plays, but these red zone failures doomed them. It was the second-highest yards per play average (7.80) in playoff history by a losing team.
Highest Yards per Play Average in Playoff Loss, NFL History
After the turnover on downs, just 1:46 remained. Baltimore ran it three times, then did something rather smart with the intentional safety. Some of the blockers just hugged a 49er and allowed punter Sam Koch to burn time in the end zone before going out for the intentional safety with just 0:04 left.
The Ravens now led 34-31, which just makes them the first team in NFL history to win multiple playoff games when allowing 31+ points. The fact would be true for just 28+ points as well. Baltimore won 38-35 in double overtime in Denver.
Who would imagine a team with Joe Flacco, the Super Bowl MVP after 287 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT and a 124.2 passer rating, would be the first to pull that off? A hot streak engineered by a laughingstock coach like Jim “Weekend at Bernie’s” Caldwell following a three-game losing streak?
With four seconds left, one more mistake ended it as Ginn returned the kick 31 yards to the 50, failing to get the laterals going or giving the 49ers any chance to try something. Then it was over. The Harbaugh brothers did not hug, which was odd, but so was much of the evening.
Not even going to take a stab at the post-game celebration with Lewis and the Ravens.
Apparently every seven years a player gets to retire on top with a Super Bowl: John Elway in 1998, Jerome Bettis in 2005 and Ray Lewis in 2012.
Cue the Hollywood screenplay, the die-hard homer fans that eat it up, and the jaded fans who believe the Broncos cheated the salary cap, the refs screwed Seattle in Super Bowl XL, and the refs helped Baltimore along the way to get a desired outcome.
That’s just the allure of the NFL, which once again made the regular season look like the preseason in terms of predictive power for the playoffs. Seven of the last eight Super Bowls have been won by the team with the inferior regular-season record.
It was some night for Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks. Between Theismann’s Twitter typo, Simms’ insufferable commentary, and the 30th quarterback to join the club, Flacco, dropping a big f-bomb as soon as the game ended, this one had a lot of girth to it with a running time of more than four hours.
The only thing really lacking was a lead change, as Baltimore led for the final 55:36. That prevents Super Bowl XLVII from joining the short list of all-time great Super Bowls, which it had the opportunity for with the 22-point comeback in reach.
Even if San Francisco scored and made the two-point conversion, Baltimore had time for a field goal. Obviously overtime would have then been on the table, and you can just see the possibilities for the greatest Super Bowl ever.
But it was the Baltimore defense, that old reliable, coming through with a goal-line stand, exactly how Lewis would have drawn it up. He gets his Hollywood ending, and frankly, good riddance to him.
Now let’s see if the Ravens can end the streak of the last seven Super Bowl champions failing to win a single playoff game the following season.
Well there is no next week. We have reached the end of season two of Captain Comeback. No meaningful games until September, but there will be some meaningful data shared on clutch history before then. We leave you with the final report on the 2012 season.
Final 2012 Season Report
Fourth quarter comebacks: 70
Game-winning drives: 85
Games with 4QC opportunity: 149/267 (55.8 percent)
10+ point comebacks wins (any point in the game): 40
Coming back better – bigger would be impossible – in 2013.
Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.