NEW ORLEANS – There were plenty of game-changing plays in the Super Bowl, including Jacoby Jones’ electrifying 108-yard kickoff return, Colin Kaepernick’s rushed, fourth-down incompletion on the 49ers’ final play, Jim Harbaugh’s run under the bleachers to start pulling out plugs (OK, just kidding on that one). But there were several other under-the-radar plays that proved to be critical as well.
Some might not have seemed so important at the time, but without each of them, the game could have played out much differently.
Here, in chronological order, are five plays that ultimately loomed large in the Ravens’ 34-31 win over the 49ers here Sunday for the Ravens’ second Super Bowl title:
1. Vernon Davis lines up in an illegal formation.
It might seem foolish to consider the game’s very first play to be a turning point, but it helped set the tone for the entire first half. Davis caught a 20-yard pass to begin the game, but because he was lined up in an illegal formation, the pass was negated and the 49ers faced 1st-and-15. They got nothing on their next two plays, and then they ran a draw to Frank Gore on third-and-15, a very conservative call. That led to a punt, and the Ravens quickly drove six plays for a score. The 49ers spent the rest of the half on their heels.
2. Bernard Pierce gains 3 yards on third-and-1.
The 49ers came into the game with the highly touted rushing attack, but the Ravens and 49ers had nearly identical rushing totals at halftime (49ers: 15-53, Ravens: 16-54). With the Ravens facing third-and-1 from the Ravens 34 early in the second quarter, Pierce ran left and gained 3 yards, extending the drive. Seven plays later Flacco hit Dennis Pitta on a 1-yard touchdown for a 14-3 lead. Third-down success was a huge factor for the Ravens early. They were 6-for-8 on third down in the first half.
3. Anquan Boldin goes for 30 yards on third-and-3.
This might have been the biggest nonscoring play of the game. The Ravens’ huge lead had been cut to 28-23, and they were reeling, like a boxer on the ropes just trying to hang on. The Ravens desperately needed to keep a drive going. Facing third-and-3 from the Ravens' 35 late in the third quarter, Flacco hit Boldin down the right sideline for a 30-yard gain. It ultimately led to a 19-yard field goal by Justin Tucker, which extended the Ravens lead to eight points and stalled the 49ers momemtum.
4. Ed Reed forces an incompletion on two-point conversion.
After Colin Kaepernick raced 15 yards for a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, the 49ers trailed 31-29 and lined up for a two-point conversion that could have tied the game. Ed Reed came with pressure off the right edge, timing his rush perfectly –- or he jumped the gun and was blatantly offside, depending on your point of view. Reed's pressure forced Kaepernick to throw earlier than he wanted to and the pass fell incomplete. Had the conversion been good, it’s likely the 49ers would have needed only a field goal to tie on their final possession.
5. Jimmy Smith breaks up a third-down pass.
Much is being made of the 49ers final play in the end zone and whether there was defensive holding, but the play just before was just as huge. On third-and-goal from the 5, Kaepernick rolled right and threw to Michael Crabtree, who couldn’t hold on to the ball as he was hammered by cornerback Jimmy Smith. It was the biggest play of the year for Smith, and epitomized the 49ers’ final drive, when they went away from Kaepernick’s running threat with three straight throws.