The rise of Colin Kaepernick, the departure of Ray Lewis and something about a sibling rivalry. Narratives are never in short supply for the Super Bowl, and this year's big game in the Big Easy is no exception. Yet one storyline is flying under the radar, curious since it's the only subplot that ultimately matters: which team will emerge victorious with the Lombardi Trophy?
The early favorite seems to be San Fran, and with good reason. The 49ers have fallen just twice in the last 15 weeks, thanks to the lethal combination of a stiff resistance and explosive offense. Though the former is nothing new in the Bay Area (more on this in a second), the latter is a late-season development, one which coincided with a change under center. The switch to Kaepernick, a second-year arm out of Nevada, was quite the gamble by head coach Jim Harbaugh, as first-team field general Alex Smith had been solid, if not spectacular, for San Francisco the past year and a half.
However, Kaepernick's merits in relief of Smith's concussion warranted the starting gig, adding a dynamic element to an attack that was mostly based on the soil. While controversial, the swap has proved prosperous, as Kaepernick's duality has correlated to a 7-2 record and vaulted the 25-year-old atop the pigskin world.
Not that the 49ers offense is a one-man show. Despite an accumulation of age and injuries, Frank Gore continues to go strong in his eighth campaign in the NFL, rushing for over 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns this season. Former first-round pick Michael Crabtree finally came to fruition in his fourth season in the league, hauling in 85 grabs for 1,105 yards and nine scores. And though his stats might state regression, as evidenced in the NFC Championship Game (five receptions for 106 yards and a trip to pay dirt), Vernon Davis remains an elite performer at tight end.
But make no mistake, the foundation of the 49ers is built on defense. Boasting six Pro Bowlers in their unit, San Francisco held adversaries to a scant 17.1 points per contest, second-best in the NFL, and were one of just three teams to confine opponents to fewer than 300 yards per game. Kaepernick and Harbaugh might garner the headlines, but it's the production of the defense that will decide if the 49ers reach the Promised Land.
This outlook used to be shared by the Ravens, as their combativeness had been a staple of the franchise for over a decade. Unfortunately, this sentiment could not necessarily be stated in 2012. Extended absences from the aforementioned Lewis, Lardarius Webb and Terrell Suggs led to pedestrian output from the Ravens defense this fall, ranking 17th in total yards allowed. However, with Lewis and Suggs back in tow, Baltimore has regained some of the aptitude of old and, more importantly, its notorious self-assurance. The defense may be more bark than bite, yet it's still a formidable corps.
Alas, the fortune of the Ravens lies in the hands of its offense and quarterback Joe Flacco. Facetiously referred to as "Average Joe" for his occasionally underwhelming performances, Flacco has been lights-out in January, tossing for over 850 yards, eight touchdowns and just one turnover in the playoffs. In only his fifth professional year, the Delaware product owns a laudable 8-4 record in his postseason career. Maligned as he may be at times, Flacco is quickly and unquestionably gaining the reputation as a crunch-time entity.
Of course, it helps having Ray Rice at your disposal. The diminutive multi-purpose back saw a slight drop in yardage in 2012, but don't think you'll hear too many complaints from the Ravens organization regarding Rice's harvest. Moreover, rookie rusher Bernard Pierce has materialized into a strong substitute for John Harbaugh's crew, as seen in his winter outings. Also helping the cause is the receiving duo of Anquan Boldin (16 catches, 276 yards, three touchdowns in the playoffs) and Torrey Smith (nine receptions, 198 yards, two scores). Once viewed as the club's Achilles' heel, the offensive blitz of Baltimore is not to be trifled with.
So who will be parading in the French Quarter in the first weekend of February? According to the award-winning WhatIfSports.com simulation engine, the 49ers come out on top 55.4 percent of the time by an average margin of 20-18.
|Super Bowl XLVII|
|Baltimore Ravens vs.||44.6||18||Boxscore|
|San Francisco 49ers||55.4||20||Simulate Game|
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