Jim and John Harbaugh will be facing off for the second time, but this time with the stakes much higher.
Baltimore and San Francisco weren't supposed to be playing each other in the Super Bowl. However, the two teams fought through remarkable adversity and are heading to the Super Bowl.
Jim and John Harbaugh are both NFL head coaches, and they are brothers who are separated by a mere 15 months. The two will meet in the Super Bowl, and Colin Kaepernick and Patrick Willis will clash with Joe Flacco and Ray Lewis.
There are tons of matchups and storylines for this Super Bowl, featuring two teams that had to rally and dethrone the higher seeds on the road in the playoffs. The 49ers didn't play their best against the Falcons, and neither did the Ravens in the first half against the Patriots. But in the second half, both teams dominated, and they are both advancing.
But getting to the Super Bowl isn't enough for these two teams. They want to win. While it's far from everything, talent is important to winning. To give you an idea of talent, I will break down this intriguing game by each position.
Joe Flacco has eight touchdown passes and no interceptions in the postseason. Colin Kaepernick has 20 touchdowns and four interceptions in nine starts this year. So who has the edge?
I broke this down in more detail in a separate article, and it was very hard for me to choose. But I'm going to go with the young 49er signal-caller, because he is a threat to run in the read-option, which he is very good in, and a threat to throw. Falcon linebackers stayed near the line of scrimmage on passes because of Kaepernick being a threat to run, and that left guys open semi-deep in the middle of the field.
Flacco has been great this postseason, but he struggled against New England in the first half and broke out after star Patriot cornerback Aqib Talib went down with an injury. Flacco got in a rhythm in the second half, but the 49ers defense won't allow him to throw three touchdowns in 10:01, which is what New England allowed.
If Flacco gets time, he will make the 49ers pay. But when he is pressured, he forces a lot of passes, notably deep passes, and that could cost him dearly. Kaepernick hasn't been doing that as much, and the 49ers will continue to effectively mix up their play-calling. So, the slight edge here goes to the 49ers and Kaepernick.
Advantage: 49ers, but not by much
Frank Gore suffered through the tough times in San Francisco, but now he is being rewarded. And he's helping out with the rewards as well.
Gore ran for 90 yards and two touchdowns against the Falcons, following up a 119-yard, one-touchdown effort in the divisional round against the Packers. However, Ray Rice has also had success in the postseason, as he ran to the tune of 131 yards and a touchdown in the divisional round against Denver.
Bernard Pierce has also done a great job complementing Rice, and his stats have been way better than Rice's. In the playoffs, Pierce has 169 rushing yards on 27 carries, good for 6.3 YPC. Pierce has speed, and he has been finding holes and breaking tackles. But LaMichael James can do the same thing, and he ran for 34 yards and a touchdown on five carries in the NFC Championship.
Both teams have small, but tough, bruising backs (especially Gore), and speedy change-of-pace backs. While I think Gore, who will fight for every yard, rarely loses yards and breaks tons of tackles, is better than Rice, Pierce deserves the edge over James.
So, overall, the backs are about the same. But Joe Staley and the 49ers offensive line open up tons of holes, and that's the deciding factor for me. So, I'm giving San Francisco the slight edge.
Advantage: 49ers, slightly
Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta terrorized opponents in the postseason, and Michael Crabtree broke onto the scene. So, who has the edge at wide receiver?
Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree anchor an otherwise depleted receiving corps for the 49ers, who have dealt with injuries to Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham. Randy Moss is a 49er, and he made two big catches to set up San Francisco's third touchdown against Atlanta. However, he is old and not likely to be targeted a ton in the Super Bowl.
Baltimore on the other hand, has tons of depth. Smith is a speedy deep threat with great hands and the ability to burn any cornerback (just ask Champ Bailey). Pitta has great hands and is a legitimate target who can burn a defense, like Tony Gonzalez did with eight catches for 78 yards and a touchdown.
Oh, and Anquan Boldin? He hasn't lost a step, still has magnets on his hands and still has the potential to do big things. He has three touchdown receptions this postseason, two in the AFC Championship. Flacco also has Tandon Doss, Ed Dickson and Jacoby Jones (over 30 catches this year) to throw to if everyone else is covered.
Crabtree has broke onto the scene with Kaepernick at quarterback, and Davis terrorized the Falcons. However, this isn't a very difficult decision for me to make: Baltimore has the edge.
Colin Kaepernick has been sacked five times in his last five starts, and that's virtually nothing.
Even though he is great at avoiding sacks, the credit for this incredible stat has to go to the offensive line, notably Joe Staley. Staley anchors an offensive line that might be the best in football. The offensive line has opened up holes for Gore and James all year, and they will continue to do so.
Marshal Yanda anchors the Baltimore offensive line, which did a very good job against the Patriots, especially in the second half. Statistically, Michael Oher is one of the worst tackles in football, but Bryant McKinnie, Matt Birk, Kelechi Osemele and Yanda have done a great job with Oher.
However, the 49ers have Justin Smith and Aldon Smith, and I do think the Ravens offensive line, which has been inconsistent, will struggle. Kaepernick has been protected and Gore has burst through holes because of San Francisco's consistent offensive line, which easily gets the edge here.
Trindon Holliday and Wes Welker had their way with the Ravens while returning punts, but the Ravens are still very dangerous on special teams.
Jacoby Jones, who caught the miraculous game-tying pass against Denver, is a legit threat to return any kick for a touchdown. He has speed and good vision, and he single-handedly beat the Steelers in one game and took a kickoff back 105 yards against the Raiders.
Ted Ginn Jr. has done well in the playoffs, and he helped set up the 49ers' game-winning touchdown with a very good 20-yard return. However, Jones is definitely more explosive, and if the Ravens can contain Ginn, they have the edge.
In the kicking game, the edge goes to Baltimore easily. Justin Tucker has made 32-of-35 field goals, for an incredible 91.42 percent success rate. David Akers has made almost as many, as he has made 30. But his success rate is about 68 percent, and he has missed eight field goals in his last eight games, including one against the Falcons from 38 yards out.
Andy Lee is a great punter, but Sam Koch is good too, and Lee, who has averaged about 54 yards per punt this year, can't make up for the kicking and punt returning struggles. The edge definitely goes to the Ravens here.
Justin Smith and Aldon Smith are regarded as two of the best defensive lineman in the game, but it's been a different story lately.
Somehow, Aldon Smith is in the midst of a five-game sack drought, and Justin Smith failed to intimidate Matt Ryan early and get pressure on him. If the same thing happens with Flacco, a pure pocket passer, he will find Smith, Pitta or Boldin and move the Ravens downfield and into the end zone.
Baltimore has a decent defensive line as well, with Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Pernell McPhee and Paul Kruger anchoring it. Suggs isn't at full strength, but he did well against the Patriots, and Kruger is a listed as a linebacker who often rushes. Baltimore can put pressure on the quarterback, but it's unlikely that they will get to Kaepernick.
Staley took Clay Matthews easily in the Divisional Round, and he, Mike Iupati (an All-Pro), Alex Boone, Jonathan Goodwin and Anthony Davis are all more than capable of handling the Raven rushers. I expect Justin Smith, possibly at full strength, to bull-rush Flacco and get to him, and I think the talent of the 49er D-line and the fact that Kaepernick doesn't get sacked and SF has a great O-line gives the 49ers the edge.
Ray Lewis is probably the greatest defensive player of all-time. And when he retires, he will pass that torch to Patrick Willis.
Both are linebackers in the Super Bowl, and both are probably the two best linebackers in the game. Lewis recorded 44 tackles in three playoff games, after recovering from a torn triceps. Willis recorded 11 solo tackles against the Falcons, and did a nice job in pass coverage.
NaVorro Bowman did a good job too, breaking up a pass in the first quarter which probably prevented a touchdown (Matt Bryant made a field goal instead), and breaking up the fourth-down pass that ended the game for Atlanta with great coverage on Roddy White. The two will tackle anyone they get their hands on, and they are amazing.
Ahmad Brooks isn't too bad either, as he batted down two key passes against the Falcons and is a threat to sack the quarterback even as a linebacker. Dannell Ellerbe of Baltimore is too, though, as he recorded 4.5 sacks and 92 tackles in the regular season. He is a great compliment to another sure tackler in Lewis, and Baltimore has a great linebacking corps for sure.
However, the 49ers probably have the best duo in the game with Ahmad Brooks also being more than capable of being mentioned in a conversation about elite linebackers. Lewis, Brendon Ayanbadejo (43 total tackles this year, two in the playoffs) and Ellerbe are overmatched here.
The 49ers are supposed to have one of the best secondaries in the game, but they were absolutely burned by Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and the Falcons.
Jones caught the ball 11 times for 182 yards and two touchdowns, with 100 receiving yards in the first half. Dashon Goldson blew some coverages, Roddy White and Jones got some space on Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers, and other than an interception, Chris Culliver struggled mightily.
Ed Reed hasn't picked off a pass in seven games, but Bernard Pollard forced a fumble and did very well against the Patriots. Cary Williams isn't elite, and neither is Corey Graham, but both have made impacts. Williams picked off Brady in the AFC Championship game, and Graham did very well against Denver, picking off two passes and taking one to the house.
Baltimore doesn't have a great second cornerback, but they've got Reed anchoring the deep middle of the field, and the 49ers don't have a great second receiver to exploit the Baltimore weakness. Bernard Pollard will be on Crabtree, but with a great safety and Williams or Graham, both guys who are good enough to handle Randy Moss, Baltimore gets the edge here.
And for the 49ers? Well, if they don't get tons of pressure on Flacco, the secondary will be in deep trouble.
In their wildest dreams, Jim Harbaugh and John Harbaugh could not have happened what's about to take place on February 3rd.
The two brothers will coach their respective teams in the Super Bowl, trying to outthink each other. Both have made bold moves this year, from Jim Harbaugh putting Kaepernick into the fire in the second half of the season and John Harbaugh firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and promoting Jim Caldwell before Week 15. Both have done a great job, and that's why they are both here.
John has coached the Ravens for five years, getting them to the AFC Championship three times and finally getting them through this year. He's done a very good job with Flacco and the team, and the Ravens team, which is known as a brotherhood because of their coach, have big goals. Harbaugh helped keep them believing with games against Denver and New England coming up, and they are now here as a result.
Jim has gotten the 49ers to the NFC Championship twice in two years, and he has done a great job coaching Kaepernick. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has done a great job mixing up play calls, and Harbaugh knows the strengths and weaknesses of his team. He has pulled rabbits out of his hat, though, as he baffled Green Bay with an assault of read-option plays and somewhat surprised Atlanta with his usage of Moss and Davis.
Both are great coaches with great coordinators as well, as Roman was almost hired as a head coach. However, instead, he kept the 49ers going with the run even when they were down 17, and that resulted as a win. Caldwell has done a great job working Flacco's strengths, though, and that doesn't only include deep passes. A lot of 10-20 yard passes over the middle of the field are incorporated.
This is a great battle here, and it's very tough to call. Jim has arguably had more success in his two years, with a record of 27-8-1, but John is more experienced and has an 8-4 playoff record. This is a very tough one to call, so I'm just not going to call it.
But don't be surprised if the edge shifts towards one team.
Overall, both teams are great, physical ball clubs. That's why they're both facing off with a Lombardi Trophy on the line.
Baltimore wasn't expected to get here, but Joe Flacco stepped up, Ray Lewis stepped up and motivated the team, which surprised the world by winning the AFC.
The 49ers were probably the NFC favorites, but they were doubted after falling behind against the Packers and Falcons (by 17 against Atlanta). Jim Harbaugh kept them motivated, though, and they won both games.
Both teams are motivated and talented, and Kaepernick and Flacco will keep the opposing defenses off balance. Expect a high-scoring game, and expect the 49ers to win rather easily, if they can pressure Flacco and force him into making bad decisions, which they can definitely do.
San Francisco will probably try and get the run going early, with Kaepernick as well, to open up the middle of the field and the play-action. Baltimore will probably try to win with Flacco, but I think Flacco might be overwhelmed if SF takes a big lead and stops the run.
My pick is a 49ers win. But it will be a close, hard-fought, interesting game.
The Pick: 49ers 35, Ravens 31