When you think of both the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, the first thing that comes to mind is that these teams are both known as hard-hitting defenses. While the Ravens defense seems to have slipped in the 2012 regular season, the 49ers were among the top ranked units in the league.
Let's take a look at the statistical comparison between the two defenses, first in the regular season and then for what has transpired in the post season.
San Francisco was the NFL's 3rd ranked defense during the regular season, in terms of yards allowed (294/game). Baltimore dropped down to 17th, giving up 350 yards/game. While the Ravens gave up an average of 5.2 yards/play, the 49ers only gave up 4.7 yards/play.
The number of plays both teams were on the field was pretty close, with the Ravens defense being on the field for 1,086 plays and the 49ers for 1,012, a difference of only 4-5 plays per game.
The biggest difference that stands out in the stats was the amount of penalties the defense was flagged for. The 49ers defense was called for 93 penalties over the course of the season, while the Ravens were the 9th most penalized defense in the league, with 107, which only translated to about one more yellow hanky per game. However, the Ravens were nailed for more personal foul penalties than any team in the league, extending a lot of drives that otherwise would have ended.
In what I see as the only defensive statistic that truly mater, the Ravens gave up 21.5 points per game in the regular season while the 49ers gave up the second fewest in the league at 17.1 points per game.
However, the post season tells a very different tale in terms of how these statistics have seemed to have reversed themselves in Baltimore's three playoff games versus San Francisco's two games.
While the Ravens continue to give up yards to opposing offense's in bunches, they are only giving up an average of a half-yard more than the 49ers (415 vs 414.5 yards/game). A key stat is that despite the closeness in yards allowed, the Ravens are only allowing 4.9 yards per play while the 49ers are allowing 6.8 yards/play.
Perhaps the biggest difference is that Baltimore's defense has been on the field for 256 total plays, or over 85 per game, a huge amount, prompting so many so-called "experts" to keep predicting them to lose due to tiredness, which obviously hasn't made a difference and won't be a factor after two weeks of rest prior to Sunday's game. San Francisco, in comparison, has had their defense on the field for a two-game total of 122 plays or just 61/game.
Once again, the number of penalties the Ravens are being flagged for continues to be alarming, with 19 so far in the three games, more than twice the average of the 49ers, who have only been hit for seven penalties in their two playoff games.
At the same time, the biggest reversal in defensive statistics comes in the all-important points-allowed category, where the Ravens defense has shined in the post season. Thanks to the team being their healthiest all season and the first time that both Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs have played together this season, Baltimore seems to have returned to their stingy ways, giving up only an average of 19 points per game over the course of their three-game playoff season so far.
The 49ers surrendered 31 points to the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round of the playoffs and 24 points to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game, an average of 27 points per game in the post season. The 49ers fell behind the Falcons 17-0 early in the NFC Championship Game, staging an amazing comeback to win the game in the final moments.
The Ravens gave up only one touchdown to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, shutting them out in the second half. They did not surrender a TD to the Indianapolis Colts in the Wild Card Round and while they gave up three offensive TDs to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in the Divisional Playoff Game, they only allowed one offensive TD in the second half.
That means that form the beginning of the second half through double-overtime against Denver and for the entire game at New England, a total of well over 100 minutes of play, the Ravens gave up only one touchdown each to Peyton Manning and Tom Brady led offenses.
For the pure, old-school football fans, this game is shaping up to be a battle of wills, as both defenses will be making statements early with their ferocious style of physical play. There will be great offensive plays, but while they might make the highlight reels, it will be defense that wins this Super Bowl and you will two of the league's best on display Sunday evening.