The Harbaugh brothers will meet again in Super Bowl XLVII.
After one of the most exciting postseasons in NFL history, the stage for Super Bowl XLVII is finally set. The San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens will square off in New Orleans on Feb. 3 to battle for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
The biggest storyline of Super Bowl XLVII is undoubtedly the head coaching matchup between brothers John Harbaugh of the Ravens and Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers. In what many are calling the "Harbowl," the two brothers will now face each other on America's biggest sports stage.
John Harbaugh has coached the Ravens for five seasons and has led them to at least the divisional round of the playoffs in each season. Jim Harbaugh is 24-7-1 in two seasons with the 49ers and has restored one of the NFL's marquee franchises to "elite" status.
The Ravens and 49ers both reflect the personalities of their head coaches, so with that in mind, let's look at five key matchups that will decide the Super Bowl XLVII winner.
Super Bowl XLVII will be won and lost in the trenches.
With respect to the defenses of the Indianapolis Colts, the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots, the 49ers present a much more formidable challenge to Baltimore's offensive line than the Ravens' first three playoff opponents.
Baltimore has only allowed four sacks so far in the postseason, which has allowed Joe Flacco to throw for 8 TD's, 0 INT, and boast a 114.7 quarterback rating. In particular, left tackle Bryant McKinnie has done a stellar job of protecting Flacco's blind side.
The Ravens offensive line has also been outstanding in opening up running lanes for Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, who have combined to rush for over 400 yards.
The 49ers will counter with Justin Smith, Isaac Sopoaga and Ray McDonald anchoring the defensive front, and a physical linebacking group led by Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman,and Aldon Smith, who had 19.5 sacks during the regular season.
San Francisco's defense has been stout against the run all season, having only allowed 3.7 yards per carry in the regular season. Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell must develop a game plan that balances a healthy mix of run and pass.
Baltimore's offensive line needs to allow Flacco the necessary time in the pocket for him to open up the Ravens vertical passing game and find Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones. The 49ers secondary has looked shaky at times this postseason, so how Baltimore's offensive line plays remains a huge X-factor in determining how productive both Rice and Flacco will be.
Expect Vernon Davis to be Colin Kaepernick's #1 passing option against Baltimore.
Vernon Davis had a monster game against the Atlanta Falcons, compiling 5 receptions for 106 yards and one touchdown.
The presence of Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss, combined with the running ability of Kaepernick allowed Davis to find acres of space in the Falcons secondary, and he will be looking to replicate that success against the Ravens secondary.
I anticipate the Ravens linebackers will be focused on stopping both Kaepernick and Frank Gore on the ground, which could force Ravens safety Ed Reed to monitor Davis.
Although the Baltimore secondary lost top cornerback Lardarius Webb to injury in the regular season, they are still led by Reed, who was a vital component of the second-half shutout that Baltimore pitched against Tom Brady and the Patriots offense in the AFC Championship game.
Reed has 61 career interceptions and remains one of the premier safeties in the NFL and will be patrolling the middle of the field during the Super Bowl.
Do not be surprised to see a few big collisions between these two players.
Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith have been a nightmare for opposing defenses in the playoffs, combining for 25 receptions, 474 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns. Each receiver has caught a pass of at least 50 yards.
And of course, there is also the immortal 70-yard TD that Jacoby Jones caught in the final minute against the Denver Broncos to save the Ravens' season. The Ravens' high-powered passing attack also features Dennis Pitta along with Ray Rice as an option out of the backfield.
With a variety of options for Joe Flacco to throw to, San Francisco's secondary will face a tough test. Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown will start at cornerback, while Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson will play at safety.
One warning sign for the 49ers secondary is that they are allowing an average of 8.1 yards per pass completion in the playoffs, which is up from 6.1 yards in the regular season.
Baltimore's offense thrives on big passing plays, so expect the 49ers secondary to play a consistent amount of Cover 2 defense to take Baltimore's vertical threat away.
A Super Bowl title for Kaepernick would cement him as the face of the next QB generation.
On paper, the quarterback matchup in Super Bowl XLVII might not measure up to some other names from Super Bowls in the past decade, but the postseason stats for both Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick have been outstanding.
Flacco has a career record of 7-4 in the playoffs, but has elevated his postseason play this season to an elite level. He has thrown for 8 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 853 yards, and has a 114.7 quarterback rating. With his win over the Patriots on Sunday, he is now the only QB in NFL history to win six road playoff games.
In five seasons, Flacco has won at least one playoff game every year. And at age 28, he is now entering the prime of his career by making his first trip to the Super Bowl. In short, he is the most consistent QB in the NFL right now.
Colin Kaepernick will only be making the 11th start of his career in Super Bowl XLVII, but has the composure of a seasoned veteran. Kaepernick has responded to every adverse situation he has faced in the regular season and playoffs.
Early in the 49ers divisional game against Green Bay, he threw a pick-six interception. He could have faltered, but instead he led the 49ers to a touchdown on their next drive and they went on to win 45-31.
Against Atlanta, the 49ers fell down early again 17-0, but Kaepernick led San Francisco to a 28-24 victory. In the playoffs, he has passed for 496 yards and a 105.9 rating, but has also rushed for 202 yards on only 18 carries.
Now, he has a chance to place his name alongside 49ers legends Joe Montana and Steve Young with a Super Bowl victory.
Super Bowl XLVII will be the final game of Ray Lewis' career.
One of the best showdowns in Super Bowl XLVII will be between arguably the two best linebackers in the NFL in Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis.
Lewis might be retiring, but he unquestionably remains the heart and soul of the Baltimore defense. His performance in the playoffs has not been too bad, either, as he leads the Ravens with 25 solo tackles and 19 assists.
He remains an intimidating force in the middle of the field along with Terrell Suggs and Dannell Ellerbe, and together they will look to slow down Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore.
Patrick Willis is the leader of the 49ers defense and is excellent at defending both the run and pass with his speed, instincts, and tackling.
Willis and NaVorro Bowman make up the best inside linebacker tandem in the NFL. Willis is entering the prime of his career at age 27. This season, he earned his sixth straight nomination to the Pro Bowl as well as his third nomination to the NFL All-Pro team.
At this point in their respective careers, Willis has the edge over Lewis physically, but Lewis brings experience and intangibles to Baltimore's defense which are irreplaceable.
I expect a competitive game that will be in the 20's. Baltimore feels like a team of destiny, but I think San Francisco has a slight edge in the ability to make big plays on both sides of the ball.
San Francisco - 27
Baltimore - 20