Blackouts and Comebacks: A Super Bowl to Remember

By: Chris Dagonas

It was the best of games, it was the worst of games.  Before the Blackout, the Baltimore Ravens were dominant in their dismantling of the San Francisco 49ers.  When the lights were restored, after a half hour delay, the 49ers had evolved into a complete football team, both offensively (scoring 17 straight points) and defensively (only allowing 6 points to the Ravens for the rest of the game.)

Most football contests, Super Bowl or otherwise, are easily broken down into First-Half and Second-Half analyses.  For Sunday’s Super Bowl, I will instead go with a Pre-Blackout and Post-Blackout breakdown.  This is due mostly to the fact that Sunday was not the first time that a trailing competitor was helped immensely by an unnatural freak occurrence, nor will it be the last, I predict.

You plan for everything and then... this happens.

You plan for everything and then… this happens.

On the first play from scrimmage, the Colin Kaepernick completed a 20-yard pass to Vernon Davis that brought the 49ers to their own 40-yard line.  It was a laser throw from Kaepernick, and a good catch and short run from Davis.  It was the kind of play that would set the tone for the rest of the game.  Except, the Niners were flagged for an illegal formation penalty, and instead of gaining twenty yards, they lost 5.  They looked out of sorts for a couple of series after that.  It’s the kind of mental error you might expect from a lesser team (I’m looking at you, Cleveland) but not from the NFC Champions.

Baltimore quickly and effectively capitalized on the excellent field position handed to them from the Niners penalty and their stellar punt returner, Jacoby Jones.  Joe Flacco and friends drove the ball for an easy-looking touchdown, and control was firmly in their grasp.

Going into Beyonce-time, the Ravens had a 21-6 lead and were set to receive the kickoff at the start of the second half.  To underscore their dominance, Jacoby Jones took the kickoff 109 yards right down the throats of the 49ers, and the Ravens took a 28-6 lead.

That’s when things got weird.

On the ensuing 49ers drive, there was a mysterious power outage.  Conspiracy theorists will likely come up with all sorts of ways that this was planned by the NFL, or CBS, or the Mafia, or Nigerian Internet Scam Artists, or some other nonsense.  Whatever the reason was, there was a half hour delay while the problem was sorted out.  Meanwhile, the on-fire Ravens were cooled down, while the shaken 49ers took the chance to recuperate and revive themselves.  What happened next seemed to catch announcers and fans off-guard.  But it is not without precedent.

Wimbledon, 2001.  Goran Ivanisevic entered the tournament as a wildcard, and proceeded to storm through the preliminary rounds, defeating respected veteran Carlos Moya and up and coming Andy Roddick.

Goran Ivanisevic, in a football column. Yup, that's right.

Goran Ivanisevic, in a football column. Yup, that’s right.

He met hometown favourite Tim Henman in the semi-finals.  Henman raced out to a two set lead, before his momentum was halted by those famous British rains.  The two competitors were forced to wait out a storm in the locker room, and upon their return, Ivanisevic just dominated the rest of the match, resulting in a victory – one so unlikely and so incredible that even the British fans were applauding Ivanisevic at the end of it.  Ivanisevic went on to defeat Patrick Rafter in the finals, another five set classic, and cemented his place in sports lore with one of the greatest comebacks of all time.

There were tons of other examples I could have gone with here; Liverpool vs AC Milan in 2005, New York Jets vs Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football in 2000, Cleveland Indians vs Seattle Mariners in 2001.  The comeback is nothing new in sports, but the unique nature of these two comebacks is the unplanned stoppage, and the subsequent dramatic swing in momentum.

When the lights came back on and the game re-started on Sunday evening in New Orleans, the 49ers looked like they were ready to Goran the crap out of Baltimore.  They had found their rhythm, finally, and rolled for 17 straight points, closing the gap from 22 points to 5.  The Ravens, meanwhile, had just been robbed of all of their momentum, and could hardly put a series together.

As you probably know by now (SPOILER ALERT) the Ravens were able to wake up just in time to kick a couple of field goals and seal the deal.  I won’t dwell too much on the details, but I am more concerned here with why this sort of thing happens.  How can a stoppage of play, whether it be planned or unplanned, reverse fortunes so dramatically?

Let me put it to you this way: have you ever felt that the world was against you?  That no matter what you did, how hard you worked, that things would just end up bad?  If you’ve ever felt that way, and most of us have, then you’re beginning to see how these momentum swings can work.  Confidence, they always say, is key to success.  It is also a tricky concept, and can be given or taken away in equal measure.  The confidence built up through an hour of excellent play can be erased in an instant with some ill-timed rain, or a power outage, or a bad call from a referee.  If you’ve experienced this, you’ve also experienced the vicious cycle that ensues.  You feel bad, so you perform tasks worse, so you feel even worse, and so on.  This is hyper-elevated when it comes to professional athletes, and elevated further at the Super Bowl.  It’s why the 49ers slumped for the entire first half (after that stupid penalty), it’s why the Ravens slumped for the entire second half, and it’s why that Ivanisevic-Henman match back in 2001 was the first thing I thought about as I watched the 49ers claw their way back into the game on Sunday night.

All told, that was a fantastic Super Bowl game.  Many analysts suggested that this was going to be one game that we would remember for years.  Based on the highlights, the story lines, the unusual occurrence and the incredible almost-comeback, I have every reason to believe they were right.

I mean, I just referenced a tennis match from 11 years ago.  This stuff means a lot to me.

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