Yeah, I said it. I hope the 49ers win in Atlanta. In fact, I hope they leave the Falcons bruised and groaning on the field on their way to face the Ravens, who have just gotten done doing the same thing to Tom Brady.
Does that make me a traitor to the 12th Man? I don't know. But I've got a reason, and it has nothing to do with wanting to see the NFC West, for all the mockery its endured, become the division with the most SB appearances in the last twelve years, though it would accomplish that. (It also has nothing to do with any tired Harbaugh vs Harbaugh storyline, thank you very much.)
Nah, I'm just so sick of the era of hoity-toity elite quarterbacks. So fed up with one-man teams.
Not that I have anything against Matt Ryan, doesn't seem to have that prima donna vibe about him (yet. Let's wait until he gets a ring or two. It got to Aaron Rodgers). But what are the Falcons mostly relying on? It isn't defense and it sure isn't their running game. It's that vaunted air-raid offense of theirs, Roddy White and Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez magneting every laser-accurate throw from Ryan into their mitts. Unique perhaps in its details, but still a philosophical carbon copy of that daunting deus ex machina of team styles, the pass-first spearheaded by a hyper-accurate, tall-in-the-pocket QB without whom the entire team falls apart.
Let's be honest, most people outside Atlanta probably don't even know the names of anyone else on the Falcons roster. Because they don't need to.
Meanwhile in Seattle, Pete Carroll has built something incredible. You might have heard of it about 15 years ago. It's called a FOOTBALL TEAM. As in, a group of talented individuals whose collective contributions to success are measurable. Probably much more evenly spread around than the 80% QB, 20% everything-else-combined distribution we see on these methodical pass-first teams that have been hogging the limelight since Brady lit up. Ever since then, it's felt like the only breath of fresh air from one-man storylines has been...the Steelers. Kudos to them for keeping the idea of "team football" on life support all these years, I suppose, but that team is NOT a breath of fresh air.
In Seattle, you have a wide arrangement of players making noise, enabling success, and gaining notoriety.
Russell Wilson, for all his heroics, is nothing without the threat of Marshawn Lynch, and many of his biggest plays can be directly attributed to some defender bracing for Lynch and instead seeing a play-action bomb whizz over their heads.
Lynch, in turn, is nothing without Michael Robinson and his (patchwork, lunch-pail, not-first-and-second-round-picks-everywhere) offensive line.
Golden Tate, Sidney Rice, and Doug Baldwin have bailed Wilson out, how many times?
And none of this is a diss on Wilson, obviously, because there is no seriously dissing the guy. It's just team football.
And how is the defense coming along? I almost think that Richard Sherman keeps his mouth running almost purely because he, too, is tired of one-man football and wants Seattle to be seen as a team. He certainly made it sound that way to Brady. The entire Legion of Boom will be infamous. Bobby Wagner will get up there. Red Bryant has gotten a few moments in the sun. And I'd like to think Pete isn't done filling the defense with smashmouth talent. Not even close.
Over in Denver, you have Peyton Manning getting his own bloody five-second sideline reaction shot whenever his team gets a punt return touchdown. Seriously? He wasn't even involved in that. Why does the Face of Peyton need to be consulted about things that don't even involve him? Christian Ponder doesn't get that. What's next, a two-hours Sportscenter special on Peyton's opinion of Manti Te'o? Is the man really that god-almighty important???!!!
Why do I want the 49ers and Ravens in the Super Bowl? Because the Harbaughs, like Pete Carroll, are revolutionizing football. Or better yet, they are returning it to its roots. Reviving a brand of the game that we thought was dead. They are making the "team" relevant again. They are at the forefront of the trend of taking apart those annoying, seemingly invincible superstar QB's with their supermodel wives, neutronium contracts, and untouchable receivers. They are liberating other NFL teams from the "find an elite pocket passer or you have no chance" draft strategy that has held them hostage for years.
I'll be frank - I used to dread the draft. For a while there, in 2011 as passing records fell without Peyton Manning even contributing to them, the dominance of passing seemed to be shutting down every draft strategy but one. All that mattered was finding that guy who could challenge Aaron Rodgers/Drew Brees and then Tom Brady/Peyton Manning. Not an easy task, to say the least. The running game didn't matter anymore, argued I as I ground my teeth down, because nothing indicated that it did. The passing league sucked a lot of the fun out of the draft, left me clinging to the closest prototype in Ryan Mallett. What was the point otherwise?
Last year when the Packers didn't float right back to the Super Bowl, undermined by the regression of their defense, I was a little shocked. I'd bought into the idea that the NFL was a passing league. I also suspected that the NFL would make whatever changes it needed to keep it that way, out of a greedy desire for more points and thus higher ratings. (The decade is still young.)
When the Patriots were (again) brought up short by the smashmouth Giants shortly afterwards, it was shock with a flavor of elation coming into it. Defenses specifically built to hold down elite QB's were succeeding on a sustained basis. What was this?
By the time Seattle shook off last year's Cowboys defeat and put together a 5-3 streak on the back of Marshawn Lynch, defense, and physicality, the shock had been partially replaced by a biiiiiig, dumb grin. Real football - was it making a comeback? I hoped. I leaned forward. The pass defense still needed to prove itself against the 2012 slate of quarterbacks, rather than last year's murderer's row of Rex Grossman, Vince Young, and Caleb Hanie. But maybe it was real. If this team could find efficiency and success with Tarvaris Jackson at the helm, what more might be possible with even a modest upgrade?
And now, of course, even with the conference championships still to be played, the battle between NFL philosophies has been decisively blown back open. Finesse is proving NOT to be the needle's eye that we thought it was. Green Bay refused to acknowledge it last week and limped home with Colin Kaepernick's bootprints all over their - well, wait, I can't say that, because they never even managed to touch him. Athleticism and resilience have a place after all. There's still variety, strategy, intrigue, and real competitiveness possible for any football team that find an identity and draft well.
Two of those teams, the 49ers and Ravens, are playing for a chance at the big dance this weekend. The other two, possible relics of an already antiquated oligarchy that might (please God) be turning out to be just another swing of the pendulum, had to wade through two other tough run-first teams to get there. Seattle, San Fran, Baltimore, Houston, even Minnesota and Washington - these are teams built on innovation, independent thinking, team contributions, running, defense, big hits, and confidence. They give teams bloody noses and make their next opponent suck in an anxious breath. They can beat you multiple ways. They don't need elite QB's to win at the high level. They just need the best from everyone. They're even finding a place for special teams, for crying out loud! Somebody pinch me. (Not you, Danny Kelly. You're always trying to pinch me.)
Do I feel bad for Peyton charging back into the league and snatching up every single one of the NFL front-page photos, only to sputter in his first playoff chance since major surgery? Feel-good comeback story ruined? Kinda...but not really, no. The man probably has vacation homes worth more than the nation of Chad. And he knows it's not all about him. He did enough to win. He can blame that safety of his who took a little-league angle on a desperate hail mary and allowed overtime to Joe Flacco. Team.
The NFL's hype machine would probably implode into a black hole if Ryan, Brady, Manning, Manning, Luck, RG3, Brees, AND Rodgers were all to miss the Super Bowl in the same year. And I realize that Joe Flacco belongs in that category of QB's that gets nothing but snide dismissal from pundits and fans for not being in Brady's tier. Can't say that the league would find easy narratives in such a situation. They might have to actually do some heavy research as to who's playing defensive backfield for the 49ers, spread the glory around a bit, force people to acknowledge the existence of 40 players instead of the fun-sized "Dude vs Dude" sound bites that our somnambulant nation prefers.
But after the 2012 season and its celebration of read-option, reinvention, razzle-dazzle, and TEAMWORK, it would be so poetic to see all those pretty-boy QB's barred from the Super Bowl by virtue of not having a complete team behind them. Left to watch the game from their mansions while two actual football teams slug it out 1970's-style. Even if the Seahawks couldn't be there, it would feel like major validation for them and their style.
And wouldn't it be absolutely mind-blowing to see Joe Flacco come out with the Lombardi trophy? A mediocre QB winning the Super Bowl? How can that be? (And why is it always the Ravens doing it?) Gee, maybe a team effort still matters. What a great note for Ray Lewis to end on - a defensive legend helping seal the world championship. A poetic reminder that football, along with all its storylines, should be about 53 guys and not just 3 or 4. The Ravens should definitely win this. (You weren't expecting me to root for "one for the other thumb" for San Francisco, were you?)
The Seahawks may not be playing any longer (though they lost with dignity and made me proud), but the 49ers match our style well. Match it better than ever with Colin Kaepernick now entrenched. I wonder if our Seahawks players will be watching with a guilty pride and hope as their philosophical brethren represent them, test out their shared team model in the ultimate venue. Seattle has already beaten some of those elite QB's. The defense that did it is still getting younger and better. The future is bright. For once, instead of being left behind by the trends, we're riding the leading edge. We're pioneers. And 49ers fans are already ticking off next year's away game as a loss.
I was so hoping it would be Seattle over Denver in the playoffs. How fitting, to prevail with our fiercely independent style and a 5'11" rookie QB, over the superstar QB who represents the conventional thinking we just spent a season bucking and who sniffed at our free-agent feelers in the offseason. But I guess our present situation will have to do.
Let's go, Ravens and 49ers. Prove to us that real football is back.