A year ago the story floating around the NFL was that Anquan Boldin couldn't run any more, couldn't separate and was nothing more than a guy with a good history as a second receiver who needed to be replaced.
Of course, the Ravens were smarter than to believe that version of what Boldin had left, and now they are playing with the hottest receiver in the playoffs. He has led the Ravens in targets and receptions in their three playoff games, and has 16 receptions for 276 yards and three touchdowns. His two touchdown receptions against the Patriots served as a reminder to everyone that Boldin is far from done.
San Francisco's secondary struggled against Atlanta's wide receivers, and as long as they respect the vertical speed of Ravens wideout Torrey Smith, Boldin is going to pile up the receptions underneath.
Boldin played well in a Cardinals uniform during their Super Bowl appearance (eight receptions), and I see another game like that waiting for him against the 49ers.
Defense made adjustments
Teams do not win Super Bowls if they can't play well on both sides of the ball. With all the interest in Colin Kaepernick and Joe Flacco, it was easy to lose sight of how well the 49ers' and Ravens' defenses played after halftime.
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Both teams shut out their opponents in the second half and demonstrated that a few halftime adjustments and the confidence that going to the locker room behind was not a reason to hit the panic button.
Barring a tie at halftime in the Super Bowl, one team is going to draw on the championship round to come out in the second half and make the adjustments to win the game.
Referees let them play
Penalties in big games seem magnified. Every play feels like it is the one that will make or break the outcome. I was glad to see that the officials tried to stay out of the way in the championship round.
There were six penalties called in the Atlanta-San Francisco game and nine in the Baltimore-New England game. There were a total of 294 plays in both games, and a penalty every 20 plays is about all I want to see. The less I notice the officials on the field the better.
The NFL wants the players to decide the winner, not the officials, and it appears they make an effort to stay out of the way. I wish they would do more of that in the regular season. There are way too many games with close to 20 penalties called.
QBs (via Senior Bowl) off beaten path
The 2013 Super Bowl quarterbacks are from Delaware and Nevada. Not exactly USC or Notre Dame or an SEC school, which tells you there's something to good scouting departments in the NFL.
I watched Colin Kaepernick two years ago at the Senior Bowl. During the drills it was clear he had a very strong arm. During the Senior Bowl game it was clear he wasn't ready to tap into that talent in a game situation, despite tremendous numbers at Nevada. He looked like a kid from a smaller school who needed a lot of time to become an NFL quarterback.
Jim Harbaugh didn't see it that way and felt Kaepernick could be ready sooner. After two seasons and nine NFL starts, Kaepernick is on the verge of winning a Super Bowl. Joe Flacco is another graduate of the Senior Bowl and a small school. He showed up in Mobile, Ala., with his distinctive Delaware Blue Hens helmet on with the same strong arm that Colin Kaepernick possessed and quiet confidence that oozed out of him.
Both guys came to Mobile to prove that attending smaller schools wasn't a reason to ignore or discount their talent. Flacco now has more road playoff wins than any quarterback in NFL history.
As I headed to the Senior Bowl practices Monday, I couldn't stop thinking about these two young guys who quickly became top flight NFL signal callers -- and I wonder which quarterback in this year's all-star game is a 2013 diamond in the rough.
Flacco bet on himself and won
Over the summer I sat down with Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti to discuss his team and the rest of the organization. Steve is already tops in my book as an owner, and I found his comments back in August about Joe Flacco very interesting.
When we talked Flacco and a contract, Bisciotti said the club felt good about what it put on the table, but Flacco wanted more. So, in essence, Flacco was betting that he could prove he deserves more this season. Well, Joe is heading to the Super Bowl with eight touchdown passes and no interceptions in the postseason.
Flacco never drew any attention to his contractual issues and won the bet on his value. BTW, Bisciotti will be willing to meet Flacco's demands for a new contract. The Ravens are generous with the players they believe in, and there is no doubt Bisciotti is a believer.
The unsung guys
• Bernard Pierce is the backup running back to Ray Rice, a guy from Temple who had a 50-50 chance to make the team. Now he is a critical component to the Ravens' offense. When Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork was clogging up the middle for the New England defense, Pierce came in and used his natural bounce outside running style to suck the defense in and then get outside. Pierce touched the ball 10 times for 60 yards and may have even a more important role to play against the 49ers' aggressive defense.
• Bryant McKinnie, the left tackle who was shown the door by the Minnesota Vikings a year ago, became a Raven in 2011. During this past summer camp he thought he might get released. Instead he shed a lot of weight and reinvented himself. In the three playoff games, he has had the assignment of blocking Dwight Freeney, Von Miller and Rob Ninkovich. He held them to two sacks and never looked better. He will play a critical role blocking Aldon Smith in New Orleans and looks up to the task.
• Greg Roman is the offensive coordinator of the 49ers, and some club should have waited for the Niners' Super Bowl run to finish before hiring a head coach. Roman had a brilliant game plan for Colin Kaepernick and company. A week ago he turned the Packers upside down with the read option and Kaepernick the runner. This week Kaepernick looked like a guy who made a living as a pocket passer with no intention of running any keepers. Now what do the Ravens prepare to stop with two diverse game plans to study?
• Alex Boone, the big 49ers offensive guard who replaced Adam Snyder. Snyder left in the offseason for the money the Cardinals offered him. Boone is a tackle who happens to be unusually tall for the guard position. His teammates told me he was going to fill the role well, and there would be not letdown in the 49ers O-line production. I talked with Boone last week and his enthusiasm is contagious. His play in the win over the Falcons was outstanding. He pulled and led the power G play to the left, and he handled the pass blocking. Now it's a game against Haloti Ngata, and he is up for the task.
The Ray Lewis factor
When Ray Lewis first announced he was retiring at the end of the season just before the start of the playoffs, I wasn't sure how long the momentum from the news would last. It was clear that the wild card game at home against the Cots was emotionally charged. I thought the Ravens could easily be flat in the divisional round, but again the team was emotionally charged.
The mission to send Ray out as a world champion is gathering more steam, not fizzling out. It was interesting to see Ray on the sidelines against the Patriots. He wasn't his normal cheerleading self. He almost looked anxious at times hoping this journey would last now that he's gotten this far.
Guys like Anquan Boldin and Terrell Suggs now look like they have taken over the final push to get Ray Lewis in New Orleans hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. The Ravens are like a snowball rolling down a hill that has turned into a big bolder that no one may be able to stop.
Is the window closing?
Over the last 10 years, the average number of years of experience for winning Super Bowl quarterbacks is six, and the oldest winner had nine years of experience.
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are well past that range of years of service. I think both future Hall of Fame quarterbacks have plenty of good years ahead, but if the NFL was run like a life insurance company, the rates would have gone up a few years ago and would continue to rise.
Brady had a number of key drops by some his more reliable receivers in the championship game, but his offense only managed 13 points. I would bet on Manning and Brady for 2013, but there are people starting to whisper the best days are behind them.