It's not the matchup that many outside the Harbaugh family predicted, but two weeks from now in New Orleans the Baltimore Ravens will meet the San Francisco 49ers to decide who will hoist the Lombardi trophy as Super Bowl XLVII champions.
The game features some very interesting storylines that will be discussed ad nauseum leading up to the game, including one team that made a quarterback switch in midseason and another featuring a signal-caller who has made himself a LOT of money in this postseason.
However, once the talking heads have finished breaking down the game from every conceivable angle during the 37 hours of pregame coverage that will precede the Super Bowl itself, how will things unfold once the game is underway?
For the Ravens, it's not hard to envision offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, who replaced Cam Cameron midseason, implementing a game plan similar to what the team employed in its victory over the New England Patriots.
That means trying to get running back Ray Rice going early, which would open up the play-action passing game and keep the San Francisco pass rush from pinning their ears back and coming after quarterback Joe Flacco.
With that being said, the Ravens didn't have much success running the ball against the Patriots, with Rice and Bernard Pierce combining for 100 yards on 28 carries. The sledding isn't going to be any easier against a top five San Francisco run defense that shut down the Atlanta Falcons on the ground in the NFC title game.
That could force the Ravens to once again put their fate in the hands of Flacco's arm, and it's there where the Ravens could have some success against the 49ers.
Granted, the 49ers also ranked in the top five in the NFL against the pass in 2012, but that statistic is inflated somewhat, as the result of the pressure that their front seven was able to generate.
With defensive end Justin Smith hurt, San Francisco's ability to generate that pressure has been adversely affected, and the result against the Falcons was a first half where quarterback Matt Ryan attacked the 49ers defense vertically with great success.
It may well take that same approach for the Ravens to be able to move the ball effectively against San Francisco.
If Baltimore is forced to rely on Joe Flacco to carry the offense like he did against the Patriots, then that's fine with wideout Torrey Smith. He told Sam Mellinger of The Kansas City Star that as far as he's concerned. the question of whether or not Flacco is an "elite" quarterback has been emphatically answered.
“I’m so glad we’re going to the Super Bowl right now so people can get off Joe’s back,” Ravens receiver Torrey Smith is saying amid the dancing of a wild postgame locker room. “He led us there.”
The quarterback in the other huddle isn't exactly a slouch either, although how Flacco and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick find success on the gridiron is very different.
For San Francisco, it's all about the read-option looks that have become a staple of the 49ers offense since Kaepernick took over under center earlier this season.
Against the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round, that led to an NFL-record 181 yards on the ground for Kaepernick. The Falcons were able to do a much better job of containing the second-year pro than Green Bay did, but that just opened up the middle of the field for running back Frank Gore, who rushed for 90 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The 49ers gashed the Falcons for 149 rushing yards in the NFC Championship game, and after the game Harbaugh praised his quarterback's ability to take advantage of whatever opening the defense affords him, according to Ailene Voisin of The Sacramento Bee.
"Played great," praised Harbaugh. "I don't even know the words to say it. It's always the same when I'm looking in through the face mask. He competes like a maniac."
Stopping that San Francisco run game isn't going to be an easy task for a Baltimore defense that ranked 20th in the NFL against the run in 2012, and while that defense improved later in the year, the Ravens also rank 8th out of 12 playoff teams in run defense.
At least the Ravens won't be going into the game completely blind, as they saw the read-option fairly recently when they faced Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins in Week 14.
It's worth pointing out that the Ravens didn't let Griffin beat them on the ground in that game, as the rookie managed only 34 yards on seven carries.
However, Griffin threw for over 240 yards before being forced from the game with a knee injury, running back Alfred Morris rushed for 129 yards on 23 carries, and the Redskins won the game in overtime.
That doesn't necessarily bode well given that Kaepernick just showed a willingness to take what the defense gives him.
This is only one of any number of factors that will go a long way towards determining the champion of Super Bowl XLVII, but in a league driven by quarterbacks, which passer shakes off the jitters and imposes his will on the opposing defense more effectively may well be the deciding factor in who gets to go to Disneyland this year.
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