By PFW Staff, Pro Football Weekly
The story lines run deep in Super Bowl XLVII.
Brothers Jim and John Harbaugh meet for the title, the first time that has ever happened.
- Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick are aiming to join the elite conversation at quarterback.
- It will be Ray Lewis’ final game in the NFL, a chance for him to have his Jerome Bettis moment — in New Orleans.
- But there also is a football game to be played between two extremely tough-minded and physical football teams.
- The 49ers are absolutely loaded in the trenches, led by three first-round picks on the offensive line and a front seven that features four Pro Bowlers.
- The Ravens have not only Lewis, but also Terrell Suggs and an underrated supporting cast up front. The offensive line is not to the caliber of the 49ers’, but this remade group dominated the Patriots’ front in the AFC championship game.
History favors the 49ers on the big stage. They are 5-0 in the big game, but this will be their first appearance since the 1994 season (Super Bowl XXIX), when they thumped the Chargers. The Ravens have only been to one big game, back in 2000, but they too are undefeated — 1-0 in their only appearance, crushing the Giants in XXXV.
The last time these coaches and teams met was the much-ballyhooed HarBowl on Thanksgiving night in 2011. The Ravens beat the 49ers (who had to travel three time zones for a Thursday game) by a 16-6 score. The Ravens sacked then starting QB Alex Smith, whom Kaepernick has since replaced, nine times that night, tying a franchise record.
It will be an angle that will be beaten to death, but the Harbaughs will be vying for first football family supremacy — in the hometown of the Mannings. In a year in which Eli’s Giants failed to qualify and Peyton’s Broncos could not beat these Ravens, the Harbaughs made it through their respective sides of the playoff brackets.
Both of their teams had to go on the road for the conference title games, both trailed at halftime and yet both also shut out the Falcons and Patriots, respectively, in the final 30 minutes.
They also have proved that you don’t need to be hot heading into the playoffs. The Ravens lost four of five heading in, including am embarrassing home setback to the Broncos. The 49ers lost in December to the Rams and Seahawks (the latter by 29 points) and gave up home-field advantage in the postseason.
It matters little now. The Harbaughs might be on top of the world, and whatever you want to call it — the HarBowl, Bro Bowl, Super Baugh, or the like — the gutsy and talented 49ers and Ravens will play it out on the field in what should be a terrific matchup.
When the 49ers made the switch to Colin Kaepernick full time in Week 11, he had been an effective spot player and changeup QB to Alex Smith over the past two seasons. But few knew how well Kaepernick not only could throw but also how he could lead a team and jump-start an offense that had gotten a bit stale up through a tie against the Rams.
Kaepernick instantly added some juice to the offense, not only as a runner but also as a thrower. His fastball is as good as any quarterback’s in the league, and Kaepernick’s accuracy has been better than expected. In his 10 starts to date, Kaepernick has completed at least 62 percent of his passes in six of them and more than 70 percent (16-for-21 completions) in the NFC title game.
The Ravens don’t need to rush hell bent to sack Kaepernick; that probably won’t be too effective an approach. They collapsed the pocket well against the Patriots and batted down several Tom Brady passes. Brady wasn’t sacked but was hit seven times in 54 attempts, and several times he had to change his arm angles when throwing.
The Ravens can bring pressure from different spots, and they have had multiple players step up in the postseason. Paul Kruger had 21⁄2 sacks against the Colts. Terrell Suggs had only two sacks in eight regular-season games, limited by a triceps injury, but had two vs. the Broncos. Pernell McPhee batted down two Brady passes. Haloti Ngata hit Brady three times.
The 49ers have three main pass catchers — WR Michael Crabtree, TE Vernon Davis and WR Randy Moss — who do the majority of the damage, with TE Delanie Walker and the running backs getting occasional work, too.
Crabtree is the best yards-after-catch option. He has come into his own this season, especially since Kaepernick has started. Davis showed in the NFC title game, just as in Kaepernick’s first start, that he can be a major weapon down the seam or outside the numbers. Moss isn’t an elite deep receiver anymore, but he has shown more pep in this offense.
The Ravens’ secondary was shredded at times this season, with defensive injuries hurting both the pass rush and the coverage. But CB Corey Graham has stepped up as a key player, and fellow corner Cary Williams has matured nicely. They are covered so well by safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard, who have played well this postseason, too.
But the 49ers are, first and foremost, a running team. RBs Frank Gore (4.8) and LaMichael James (6.9) are averaging five yards per carry in the postseason. Gore is the bellwether back who especially looks revived now, and James is the added burst as a change-up. The 49ers’ offensive line is massive, and they love bringing in extra linemen and tight ends for jumbo fronts.
The Ravens’ defense has been on the field for an enormous number of snaps in the postseason, but the additional rest with two weeks before the game will help. They must have their bigs — especially Ngata and Ma’ake Kemoeatu — collapse the middle to disrupt the 49ers’ blocking schemes.
And of course, there is Lewis. He played terrific against the Colts and Broncos against the run and was good enough against the Patriots. But the 49ers have to know that he will be a man possessed in his final 60 minutes in the NFL. They still must account for him as a run stopper, but naturally they will do their best to take advantage of him in coverage, as well.
For over a decade, the Ravens have been known for their defense. It’s still a veteran unit, but Baltimore’s offense is a big reason they won the AFC.
Joe Flacco has turned it on this postseason, throwing eight touchdowns and no interceptions. He has a cannon for an arm, though accuracy is not necessarily his forté. He is no Colin Kaepernick, but Flacco has enough athleticism to move the pocket if he needs to.
At wide receiver, Flacco has speedy Torrey Smith, who can get behind a defense, and veteran Anquan Boldin, who has been sensational this postseason. Boldin had two touchdown catches against the Patriots, and while he isn’t known for his wheels, he is physical and can battle any DB for a jump ball. Smith has been effective on the go route, as well as on basic slant routes, finding spots in the middle of a zone defense.
Smith and Boldin will face 49ers CBs Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown. Rogers turned things around since joining the Niners in 2011 and can be a ball hawk. The two had their problems with Julio Jones and Roddy White at times in the NFC title game, though.
Jacoby Jones and Tandon Doss are other receiving options with their open-field running abilities. The Niners counter at nickel corner with Chris Culliver, who had a key interception of Matt Ryan.
TE Dennis Pitta had a breakout season with seven touchdown catches, and he has added two more this postseason. He is not fast like Vernon Davis, but can get open and is a safety valve.
The Niners, though, have the league’s top inside linebacker duo, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, both of whom can run with Pitta and TE Ed Dickson. SS Donte Whitner and FS Dashon Goldson will patrol center field, and both are big hitters.
Ray Rice is one of the league’s top pass-catching backs, and Bowman and Willis will factor in keeping Rice in check as a runner and receiver. Baltimore has also utilized rookie RB Bernard Pierce as a change-of-pace back who can bounce outside.
OLB Ahmad Brooks had a strong game vs. Atlanta, recording a pair of passes defensed, and it’s extremely difficult to run up the middle against the Bowman-Willis pair, and that’s if a back gets by NT Isaac Sopoaga and DL Justin Smith and Ray McDonald.
The 49ers’ top pass-rushing threat, Aldon Smith, was held in check on Sunday, and has not had a sack since Dec. 9, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be heavily game-planned for. Smith is extremely quick off the snap and can bull-rush opposing tackles, as well. The Ravens’ O-line allowed two sacks to the Patriots but generally gave Flacco the time he needed. Baltimore’s interior O-line — OLG Kelechi Osemele, C Matt Birk and ORG Marshal Yanda — did a fine job containing Vince Wilfork. OTs Michael Oher and Bryant McKinnie will be crucial to keeping Smith at bay.
The 49ers will rush four to get the job done and rarely blitz. It didn’t make a dent in the Falcons in the first half, but they started to get more pressure on Matt Ryan after halftime. What makes the Niners’ defense so effective is how physical the personnel is. They lay the lumber and can create turnovers.
The Super Bowl will feature some of the top special-teams players in the game, but will be very interesting if it comes down to the kickers. Ravens rookie PK Justin Tucker made 30-of-33 field goals during the season, including some very clutch ones, while 49ers veteran PK David Akers struggled. He missed 13 field goals during the season, and hit the left upright in the NFC title game.
The Ravens have the edge in the return game thanks to KR Jacoby Jones, who returned two kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns during the regular season, and the 49ers were 31st in the league in opposing kickoff-return average. San Francisco counters with a couple of potential playmakers — RB LaMichael James on kickoff returns and WR Ted Ginn Jr. on punt returns, though neither found the endzone this season.
49ers P Andy Lee is one of the best in the business. He had a net punting average of 43.2 yards this season and can shift field position with ease. Ravens P Sam Koch is solid, but not considered a potential weapon like Lee in close, grind-it-out games.
John Harbaugh has his background in special teams, spending almost two decades as a special-teams coach at the college and pro levels. His brother Jim’s unit in San Francisco has consistently been one of the league’s sharpest, but Akers’ struggles loom large heading into the Super Bowl.
Who has the edge?
QB: Ravens — Both have looked great, Flacco gets edge with experience.
RB: Even — Gore/James vs. Rice/Pierce is a wash; stellar duos.
WR/TE: Ravens — Boldin playing out of his mind, and Pitta has been effective.
OL: 49ers — With multiple Pro Bowlers, 49ers’ group is one of the league’s best.
DL: 49ers — An extra week of rest for Justin Smith gives 49ers the edge.
LB: 49ers — San Francisco has elite ILB duo and the best pass rusher in this game.
DB: 49ers — Ravens’ DBs have overachieved, but 49ers’ group gets nod.
ST: Ravens — Jacoby Jones’ returns, Akers’ shakiness send this to Ravens.
Coach: Even — Would Jack Harbaugh pick a favorite? We won’t either.
Eric Edholm and Kevin Fishbain