Monday, April 27, 2015

Derby Draws Battle-Tested Contenders to Churchill Downs


Sports Media America welcomes back Los Angeles-based actor, horse-racing personality and handicapper Steve Brady for his entertaining and (hopefully) profitable take on the 141st running of the $2 million guaranteed Kentucky Derby. For the third consecutive year, a tiered point system in select stakes races determines who qualifies for America’s greatest racing showcase, with 20 thoroughbreds making "The Run for the Roses."   

"HOW AM I BETTING THE KENTUCKY DERBY?" 

"EXACTA-LY!!"

Steve Brady
The Kentucky Derby is less than a week away, and part of a significant day of sports, followed later in the evening by the long-awaited Floyd Mayweather/Manny Pacquiao fight.

This confluence is the premise of my five-part parody video series for America’s Best Racing (ABR). Here’s the link:
 
http://www.americasbestracing.net/en/the-latest/features/#425087 
(Watch all five videos, tweet and share!)      


American Pharoah
Dortmund
The battle for favoritism at Churchill Downs will go through Bob Baffert’s Santa Anita barn, his two entries being presumptive favorite American Pharoah and close second favorite Dortmund

American Pharoah was the two-year-old champion before a minor injury forced him to the bench in late October. In his absence, Dortmund rose to prominence, winning six straight races. Dortmund looked to have taken over the top spot, until AmPhar proved he was back at full strength in the Arkansas Derby, dusting the field at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs. Both horses have won impressively—they’ve maintained a fast pace and kept going.

Far Right
Looking at the numbers, it’s hard to get past Baffert’s dynamic duo, and it's certainly possible that they could match-race each other all the way to a 1-2 finish. But there are other factors to consider. For one, AmPhar and Dortmund set fast fractions in their recent preps, and you'd have expected the horses running right behind them to end up sucking wind and dropping out of the money, but that's not what happened.  

Despite the pace, the horses near the lead ran pretty much in order. Other than Bolo moving up into third, the Santa Anita Derby was just a merry-go-round—and the Arkansas Derby wasn’t much different. In the latter, Far Right made up a lot of ground to finish second, but everyone else maintained their relative positions. Were the best horses maintaining the pace, or were the tracks souped-up for speed on those big race days?

Furthermore, there are a lot of frontrunners in this year's Derby. Over half the field likes to set the pace or be close to it, and there are several others who will be right behind it. Derbies lend themselves to fast fractions as it is—and the speed merchants look ready to dominate the early action. When this happens, horses often burn out, with only one surviving the pace struggle—and leaving room for closers to fill out the exotics. 

Although there are other frontrunners I fear (Firing Line, Materiality, El Kabeir), I’m going to stick with either Dortmund or AmPhar in the exacta, and then figure out which of the closers will run up to the wire for second.  


International Star
I’ve narrowed it down to five closers with better-than-looked races on their resumes. My top turtle is International Star. He’s won three straight races, and two of his last six races were won on speed-favoring tracks. Far Right (as mentioned above) closed into the exacta against American Pharoah in his last race, and also came late impressively in the Delta Downs Jackpot in November, later winning the Smarty Jones running similarly against the race flow. 

Danzig Moon
Upstart

Danzig Moon didn’t break his maiden until February, which didn’t leave him much time to rack up impressive runs, but the Malibu Moon colt did run well for 2nd in the G-1 Bluegrass Stakes and seems to have the right breeding to make the 10 furlongs. (He's also worked well in the morning at Churchill.) I am also giving Upstart a chance to finish in the exacta. Although he is not a closer per se, he has some races where he’s run mid-pack and then up into the money. 

Keen Ice
I have one final horse I’m using here: Keen Ice, trained by Dale Romans. I’ve been following this horse since October and had him pegged as my early Derby selection. I kept marking his races as "better than looked" and thought he would only get better as the distances got longer. But there’s only so many fourth-place finishes you can accept before you finally get off a horse. Still, he ekes into the race due to a last-minute defection, and he’ll be a huge price. Do I really want to dump him now? What if he does finally shine with that extra eighth of a mile? It’s only a few extra bucks, so I’m throwing him in.

The play: Dortmund and American Pharoah WITH International Star, Far Right, Danzig Moon, Upstart and Keen Ice. Then do the reverse with the five horses on top of the two Bafferts.

***NOTE: Post positions for the Derby will be determined by draw at Churchill Downs on Wednesday, April 29 at 5:30 p.m. ET.

WHAT: 141st Kentucky Derby

WHEN:  Saturday, May 2

WHERE: Churchill Downs, Louisville, Kentucky

TV COVERAGE: 4:00-7:30 p.m. ET, NBC Sports

[Catch more of Steve Brady at “Sh*t Horseplayers Say”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ks_1wwaG2CM]





 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

LaRoche Leaves D.C., Joins White Sox With 2-Year, $25 Million Deal

Came the news today that the Chicago White Sox have added Washington Nationals first-baseman Adam LaRoche to their team. Here's the view from a longtime Nationals observer.

Meh. It's a move for the Sox, though it may not prove to be a great one. Just turned 35, LaRoche has certainly had a productive career (http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/l/larocad01.shtml). His 243 home runs and 838 RBIs over 11 years are nothing to sneeze at, and LaRoche is a fine glove man (2012 Gold Glove winner). Of course, if he becomes the Sox' DH, a logical move to make with an aging guy who can be considered a reliable producer, the Gold Glove won't mean much, with 2014 Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu already penciled in as the starter at first base.

As a consistent lefty hitter with decent—if not overwhelming—power numbers, LaRoche takes over where Adam Dunn left off. If he can stay healthy, and avoid his historic bad starts, LaRoche could become a fan favorite at US Cellular Field, and there is hardly any chance he won't be a huge improvement over Dunn, who also came to Chicago after his best years in Washington but whose skills went the way of Rob Deer.

Dunn's tenure with the ChiSox was pretty sad, especially when you consider how much he was paid and how much he didn't help the team. He did blast some long homers, but after arriving in 2011 at the age of 31, Dunn was waylaid by emergency appendectomy surgery and never recovered that year. He did put up better power numbers subsequently, and hit 106 dingers for the Sox  in four years. But Dunn's batting average completely tanked, and his homer-or-bust routine became pretty painful to watch.

LaRoche arrives with a workout ethic at least, and in this modern age of gross overpayment for mediocre players, the projected 2-year, $25 million deal could be a relative steal.

The down side? Well, when a guy is 35, you can't ever really be sure what kind of numbers he'll put up in relation to his previous best. In a good year, LaRoche could be a 30-100 man, and if the Sox get that in 2015, they'll feel justified with the move. But 35's a tricky age for a less-than-elite athlete. At some point, those fine skills start to degenerate, and if LaRoche suddenly finds himself struggling to excel...well, he won't be the first ballplayer to discover that the downside of a career can begin when you least expect it.

LaRoche's departure from D.C. presumably paves the way for Ryan Zimmerman to take over at first base for the Nationals. Zimmerman, injury-prone and also saddled with a rag-arm that prohibits him from playing third base regularly ever again, should be an okay replacement. He played left field very capably last year upon his return from a bad hamstring, but the outfield is still not a great place for a guy with a bad wing, and it appears that if RZimm stays in the National League, first base is his only option. DHing in the AL, however, may be Zimmerman's future. For now, Zimmerman's historic power and production numbers are strikingly similar to LaRoche's, and RZimm is five years younger than his now-former teammate. Letting LaRoche walk may have been pretty easy in the end for Nationals management.

Washington fans wish LaRoche well in his endeavors. He was a good soldier in D.C. and a rock-solid pro. He could provide some stability and maturity to a White Sox team that keeps trying to rebuild. If his hitting skills have not diminished, LaRoche has a shot at a big year, though 2015 will be, for all practical purposes, his first trip through the American League.  

 

Monday, September 02, 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen, Your 2013 Tennessee Titans….Are a What-If Proposition


It’s déjà vu all over again for the Tennessee Titans in 2013. That means a season of  “what-ifs”—and a season of “what-ifs” usually translates to mediocrity. But if the Titans’ defense replicates 2012’s study in incompetence—471 points allowed, by far the worst in the entire league—we may actually be viewing a repeat of last season’s 6-10 finish as a hopeful thing. As it is, it looks like 5-11 is a realistic projection. To surpass that, here’s what needs to happen:
1. Somehow, defensive coordinator Jerry Gray becomes a creative and perspicacious planner and an ace motivator.
Chances are that isn’t going to happen, and the fact that former NFL head coach and Saints DC (and Bountygate co-star) Gregg Williams is hanging around as consultant just seems weird. But maybe most importantly, there are no game-changing upgrades to the defensive personnel. That includes Bernard Pollard, who might have something left in the tank—as a safety, mind you—but has never earned Pro Bowl honors. When local media keep talking about your contribution as inspirational force, it’s time to start looking down the depth chart.
2. Quarterback Jake Locker establishes early on that he’s ready to officially launch his big-time NFL career.
All the signs are positive, but the third-year kid is still an unknown quantity. His backup is former Bills wannabe Ryan Fitzpatrick, who suddenly went from franchise QB with big contract to expendable journeyman in the blink of an eye. Hard to believe the Titans are better off without Matt Hasselbeck, whom they let walk, and now, irony of ironies, hangs his helmet in Indianapolis with the AFC South rival Colts. (Scenario waiting to happen: Andrew Luck gets hurt against the Titans and Hasselbeck steps up in a relief role and saves the day for Indy.)
3. Chris Johnson recaptures the brilliance of 2009.
Hmmm….not likely. He turns 28 on Sept. 23. He may still produce at a high statistical level, but unless the Titans’ air attack blossoms to the point where CJ2K can pace himself easily and function as more of a surprise weapon, he’ll probably have his share of tougher days. Johnson only had five 100-yard games in 2012.
4. The reworked offensive line excels.
Well, it may happen, and if the Titans’ offense has a legit glimmer of hope, it’s that free agent Andy Levitre and rookie Chance Warmack might inject some beastliness into the trenches, thus protecting Locker sufficiently and giving Johnson room to run. Fingers crossed.
5. The receiving corps reaches its long-overdue potential.
This prospect is closely tied to Locker’s performance, of course. Nate (the Great) Washington is one of the most underrated WRs in the league. If newcomer Delanie Walker regains maximum health, the highly touted (if possibly overrated) free agent tight end should provide a stable target. Same goes for TE Craig Stevens. Then there’s talented, injury-prone sorta/maybe head case WR Kenny Britt. This is a make-or-break season for Britt. Wideout Damian Williams has developed into a reliable pro. Younger talent Kendall Wright and rookie Justin Hunter are definitely “what-if” guys, and maybe there’s a monster player there waiting to happen.
Critical Variables
Gray’s skills as a DC aside, there are otherwise just flat-out many question marks about the personnel he’s been handed. The talent falls into three categories: 1) Guys who ought to be good but you can never be sure of (Derrick Morgan, Michael Griffin); 2) Guys who have seen better days (Pollard, Kamerion Wimbley); and younger pros who need to establish themselves as winners (Alterraun Verner, Jason McCourty, Jurell Casey, and the trio of LBs Zach Brown, Colin McCarthy and Akeem Ayers).  Depth is another big what-if.
If the defense hardly improves, the offense, under OC Dowell Loggains, would have to show marked gains to give the Titans a chance to win some 35-34 ballgames. Strictly speculative business, though.
Head coach Mike Munchak: It’s make-or-break for him, as well. “Munch” is a very even-keel personality and seems like a genuinely decent human being. But besides being a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, he projects only a Joe Average energy and a pretty dull charisma. Is he the firebrand leader and strategically perceptive taskmaster who can take this team into the playoffs?
Schedule
The ultimate arbiter of a regressive 2013? The schedule. Here it is, with predicted outcomes:
Sept. 8 at Pittsburgh—L      
Sept. 15 at Houston—L      
Sept. 22 vs. San Diego—W      
Sept. 29 vs. N.Y. Jets—W      
Oct. 6 vs. Kansas City—L      
Oct. 13 at Seattle—L      
Oct. 20 vs. San Francisco—L      
BYE      
Nov. 3 at St. Louis—L      
Nov. 10 vs. Jacksonville—W      
Nov. 14 vs. Indianapolis—L      
Nov. 24 at Oakland—W      
Dec. 1 at Indianapolis—L      
Dec. 8 at Denver—L      
Dec. 15 vs. Arizona—W      
Dec. 22 at Jacksonville—L      
Dec. 29 vs. Houston—L      
There are still plenty of “what-ifs” in the schedule.  Maybe the 1-5 divisional projection is too dour. Maybe Andy Reid’s Chiefs squad won’t be that good, after all. Ditto, Jeff Fisher and the Rams.
On the other hand, the Titans have always had trouble with San Diego, so that’s no gimme even if it is a home game. And who knows what could happen in Oakland. The Titans don’t usually fare well on those long western jaunts.  
Fantasy scenario
The offense rises up under an inspired Locker and a killer OL, Johnson runs like a madman, the youngster WRs catch fire and go wild with their YAC stats, and Jerry Gray’s defense totally jells in every phase, thus making 27-10 victories possible every week of the season.
Sorry, Virginia…in fact, there is NO Santa Claus. But it’s nice to dream.
Go Titans!!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Aces Wild: Elite MLB Starters Are Off to Rocky Start in 2013


Distressed that your favorite pitcher kind of sucks this year? Worried that the ace of the staff of your favorite team might have suddenly lost his stuff forever? Yeah, well, there’s a lot of that going around.

While some of MLB’s star starting pitchers—Kershaw, Lester, Buchholz, Wainwright, Lee, Zimmermann—are achieving at exceptional levels, there are some big-name arms out there who can’t seem to get untracked. Either their pitching flat out stinks (Mark Buehrle), or injuries have hit them hard (Roy Halladay), or their teammates haven’t gotten them any runs (Stephen Strasburg). Even the great Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez, perennial Cy Young candidates both, have struggled to stay above .500.

Here are the current aces of mediocrity, with their current records. Chances are most will turn things around before the season is out, but for someone like Cole Hamels (left), it’s gonna take a very hot streak to re-enter the zone of elite hurlers. For others, like 33-year-old Josh Beckett (5.19 ERA, with a 1.5 WHIP), the end may be nearer than we know.



American League
CC Sabathia, Yankees, 4-4
David Price, Rays, 1-4
R. A. Dickey, Blue Jays, 4-6
Mark Buehrle, Blue Jays, 1-3
Josh Johnson, Blue Jays, 0-1
Justin Verlander, Tigers, 5-4
James Shields, Royals, 2-5
C. J. Wilson, Angels, 4-3
Felix Hernandez, Mariners, 5-4

National League
Kris Medlen, Braves, 1-5
Stephen Strasburg, Nationals, 3-5
Roy Halladay, Phillies, 2-4
Cole Hamels, Phillies, 1-8
A.J. Burnett, Pirates, 3-5
Yovani Gallardo, Brewers, 3-5
Kyle Lohse, Brewers, 1-5
Jeff Samardzija, Cubs, 2-6
Ian Kennedy, Diamondbacks, 2-3
Trevor Cahill, Diamondbacks, 3-5
Tim Lincecum, Giants, 3-4
Edinson Volquez, Padres, 3-5
Josh Beckett, Dodgers, 0-5

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Tiger's Masters Drop-Shot

About Tiger Woods' Friday afternoon 15th Hole misadventure at the Masters:


I think Tiger broke the rules the way he handled his replacement shot. He clearly dropped the ball where HE wanted it to lie, and as he admitted later, he did so because he "needed a couple of yards."  

I have to say that I think he should have disqualified himself, and that another golfer probably would have.  


The actuality of the rule and the spirit of the game dictated that Tiger do it right—and he didn't. I think the Masters committee wimped out when they let Tiger submit his scorecard and then penalized him later, using the sequence of events as an excuse not to throw the book at him and DQ him. This way, they feel "better" about the slap on the wrist and their big media draw gets to keep playing.


I still don't understand why tourney officials aren't readily on site—out on the course—to steer players through the rules appropriately. Or are they, and Tiger didn't want to deal with one? But when they are not there, then the self-policing issue comes into play. 


As for people calling in from TV-Land, that seems totally inappropriate. The Masters officials should be watching everything, but of course they do not watch everybody, especially guys out of contention. 


The evidence is clear. Given his choice to re-hit the original shot—there were other options available—Tiger gave himself an advantage by dropping the ball intentionally further back, to accommodate the shot HE wanted to make. No one gets that benefit on tour. Play it as it lays, and drop it according to the rules.

Unfortunately, this just makes me think that Tiger's arrogance allows him to get his way (officials intimidated?)—and he clearly does not have the integrity to stand up and do the right thing.

To me, it looks bad, and it makes Tiger look selfish and entitled. 


Methinks the game just got a little smaller.   

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Is Maria Ready for Serena? Sony Open Final Today

The BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells was held March 4-17. After the U.S. Open, it is one of the more important tennis tourneys on U.S. soil, with a warm California setting and a $5M total purse that includes a $1M payout to the singles winners. 

I missed seeing any of the tourney on the telly this year. But just now, I finished watching a replay of Maria Sharapova's dissection of Caroline Wozniacki in the women's final. Maria totally kicked her ass. I mean, really dominated. I'm not sure I've ever seen her that strong.

Yes, Wozniacki is a vanilla player, but she is dogged and can volley all day. Still, Maria would not make mistakes and she was driving the ball ferociously to the corners. She even uncharacteristically came to the net once and caught up to a well-timed Wozniacki drop shot, then fired her return on a sharp angle for the point. Woz could only watch.
 
Despite her world acclaim as a tennis star, not to mention her imposing beauty, I never really followed Sharapova with any dedication until 2009, after learning about her physical problems. Namely, in August 2008, Sharapova withdrew from the Rogers Cup tournament following a shoulder injury. An MRI revealed that she had been suffering from a rotator cuff tear since April of that year, forcing her out of all tournaments for the rest of the season, including the Beijing Olympics and the U.S. Open. In October 2008, after a failed attempt to rehabilitate the shoulder naturally, Sharapova had surgery to repair the tear.

Hence, my interest in Sharapova has always been about seeing how she would respond, at the age of 21 and in her tennis prime, to an injury that might devastate her career. It's not that you can't function after rotator cuff surgery. It's: "Can you compete in international tennis against the likes of Serena Williams or Victoria Azarenka?"

Sharapova has made the return to form, for sure, has won one major (French 2012) and has competed quite well in other majors and minors. But she turns 26 on April 19, and that will make the Maria-Watch even more interesting, since—at an age when it might all be downhill from here—she seems to be, finally, at peak physical strength, in shape and fit, fully recovered from the shoulder problem, and ready to put it all together to win another major. 

Yet Serena—now 31, and still looking powerful as ever—continues to stand in the way of Maria's challenge to ladies tennis supremacy, and the two square off at 12 noon EST today in the final of the Sony Open in Miami. 

What to look for: Is Sharapova's power game now at a point where she can wear down the great Williams? Maria will also have to prove that her fit form means an improved ability to move toward the net as necessary. Serena proved in her semifinal victory over Agnieszka Radwanska that a drop shot is not outside of her
varied arsenal. 

Sharapova must also stay away from her occasional habit of
double-faulting—a holdover issue from her shoulder recovery. Based
on the Indian Wells results, it appears that Maria might be able
to simply outmuscle Serena—and that possibility is what makes
the match must viewing. 

CBS broadcasts the match live. 





Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Confederacy of Dunces: Multiple Storylines Blur Super Bowl XLVII Picture



Now that Randy Moss has opened his mouth and upped this week’s Obnoxious Factor, Super Bowl XLVII has indeed become a confederacy of dunces, a situation made perfect by its setting in New Orleans, where suicidal author John Kennedy Toole set his cult-favorite novel. (A Confederacy of Dunces, for those football fans who don’t know it.)

Toole would doubtless appreciate all the madness going on in the Crescent City. At first, it seemed like the Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh thing would drive us insane. They were interviewing the two coaches’ parents together on a dais the other day. Jack and Jackie. Parents of John and Jim. Football royalty now, I guess. All with a “J.”

Then there were rumblings about the King of Obnoxious, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, being suspected of ingesting a banned substance. I didn’t really grasp all that. (Deer antler spray? Sounds, uh...gamey.) If it stresses out Ray at all, then good, but I doubt the scuttlebutt on this will matter.

Better still were finally some detailed retrospectives on Lewis’ 2000 murder case. His lawyer from back then got some TV face time, and rather chuckled through his explanation that somehow the clothes Lewis was wearing the night he may have been accessory to murder in Atlanta magically disappeared for all time.

Let’s be clear: Lewis was not acquitted. He copped a plea to a lesser charge. So if you still want to lay the “thug” mantle on the guy, go ahead. Besides, this is no time for a kinder and gentler Ray to be playing linebacker. (The 49ers are coming, after all.)

Alas, Randy Moss had to muck with San Fran’s more positive PR with some ill-advised verbiage, mainly, his belief that he’s the greatest receiver of all time. Good, Randy—especially when everyone in Niners Nation (and every other nation) believes that former 49er Jerry Rice is now, and forever will be, the GREATEST receiver in all universal history. “Look at ME,” Randy seems to be saying, the fourth-leading receiver on his team.   

Finally, duncedom reached semi-critical mass this week when 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver became embroiled in an interview circumstance leading him to opine on the 21st century's favorite daily obsession: homosexuality. “I don’t do the gay guys, man,” Culliver said. “I don’t do that. No, we don’t got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do. Can’t be with that sweet stuff. Nah … can’t be … in the locker room man. Nah.”

Allrighty then! 
Now that that’s all out of the way, let’s focus on the game, for Pete’s sake, ‘cause it should be a good one.

QBs: Colin Kaepernick vs. Joe Flacco
Both these guys keep avoiding the big flop. They look poised and strong, and have sent the leagues’ big-name vet signal callers to the bench this post-season. They are a study in contrast, with the Big K making an art form out of mobility, and Flak going the dropback route. Kaepernick threw only 4 interceptions all season, 1 in the playoff game vs. the Packers. Flacco has thrown no INTs in three post-season games. We’re looking here for signs about who might be prone to make the mistake on which big games can turn. If I had to pick one, I’d say Flacco, if only because he’s known to make mighty heaves down the field. Yet Kaepernick is still a very young player—and who knows what mistakes he's capable of. In case something goes very wrong, the Niners have the better backup, Alex Smith, who helmed his team only nine games ago.
Advantage: Even

Wide Receivers
Both corps are productive and capable of big plays, but the Ravens’ trio of Anquan Boldin, Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith are tall, fast, can really stretch the field—and seem to be improving right before our eyes. The Niners offer Michael Crabtree and Moss, basically—and the loss of Mario Manningham to injury has been a real drag. Moss has caught five passes in the Niners’ two playoff games. It would be a huge boost if the old Randy showed up, but unfortunately the really old Randy might just show up instead. 
Advantage: Ravens

Tight Ends
After slumbering through the latter portion of the regular season, the talented Vernon Davis has come up big in the postseason for the Niners; Delanie Walker has also made some plays. Meanwhile, the previously little-known Dennis Pitta—looking like the second coming of Frank Wycheck—has emerged for the Ravens with 61 regular season catches and 10 in the playoffs. (Pitta has a sore thigh, for what that's worth.) Ed Dickson is also very capable for Baltimore.
Advantage: Slight edge, 49ers 

Running Backs
The Niners’ Frank Gore is a wonderful running back. Tough and determined, one more year like 2012 and Gore will reach the 10,000-yard career rushing mark. He’s averaged 4.7 yards per carry this season and has averaged over 100 yards in each of this season’s playoff games. Gore is 29, however, and this is probably his last hurrah. He hasn’t been a force catching passes out of the backfield as in previous years, but that could be a key role for him in this game, given the Niners’ lack of depth at receiver. The Ravens’ Ray Rice is in his prime at 25, and besides putting up rushing numbers similar to Gore’s, he caught 61 passes this season. Ravens rookie Bernard Pierce has emerged as a surprise backup, gaining 532 yards in the regular season, and 169 yards in the playoffs. Gore gets spelled by LaMichael James, talented and young but inexperienced.
Advantage: Ravens

Defenses
If you crunch the numbers, these teams grade out pretty evenly on offense. But on defense, the 49ers have a huge edge, ranking 2d in the league in points allowed and 3d in yardage allowed. The Ravens are 12th and 17th, respectively, yet have looked more aggressive in the post-season. Holding the Patriots to 13 points in Foxboro was hugely impressive, and when you throw around veteran names like Lewis, Suggs, Reed, Ngata, Pollard, Kemoeatu, etc., you start to wonder if the Ravens aren't due for one last inevitable thuggish triumph. Their cornerbacks are suspect, though. The Niners’ D is younger and filled with All-Pro talent. Led by the awesome Patrick Willis at linebacker, they are strong at every tier, though they do need a serious game from 33-year-old DT Justin Smith, who's been slowed by a triceps injury. Linebacker Aldon Smith had 19.5 sacks in the regular season.
Advantage: On paper, 49ers; but it’s a spiritual tossup

Summary
How the coaches scheme this one will have greater implications than maybe other Super Bowls. Latecomer Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell has had things go his way in the post-season, but this should be his stiffest test. The Niners secondary—Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, etc.—needs to clamp down on Boldin  & Co., and that should be a huge battle. Flacco needs time. Will he get it? Meanwhile, 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman needs to maximize his limited weapons. That means Crabtree and Davis, probably Gore out of the backfield for short passes, and, of course, Kaepernick continuing to pull off the surprising antics that can keep a defense off-balance. Only two teams have beaten Kaepernick this year: the Rams and the Seahawks, both NFC West foes that play tough defense and held the Niners to 13 points. Kaepernick is the key to a game that has the makings of a classic. If he performs lights out, he could have the Ravens' geezers gasping for air. The bookies are giving 4 points if you take the Ravens, but you might not even need 'em.

Prediction: Ravens 26, 49ers 21