First Peyton Manning, then Tom Brady. Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has helped lead his team to Super Bowl XLVII, going through two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history in the process.
Now standing in his way is yet another top-notch foe: his brother Jim and the San Francisco 49ers. We'll hear about the Harbaugh brothers incessantly over the next week-and-a-half, so I'll spare you the narrative jibber-jabber. Just know that the Ravens' postseason schedule has been one of the hardest in recent memory—especially with 49ers fans likely to vastly outnumber Ravens fans in New Orleans.
But like it did in Denver and New England, John Harbaugh's squad could very easily come away as underdog victors on Feb. 3. How can they pull it off, though? Here is a complete breakdown of what the Ravens must do to come away with a Super Bowl championship.
Limit Colin Kaepernick's Yards Per Attempt
The Ravens spent the entire season employing bend-but-don't-break strategies against opposing quarterbacks and that's carried over in a big way during the postseason.
Using simple paper stats, Baltimore looks like it's done a mediocre job in the secondary this month. The Ravens have allowed a hair less than 300 yards per game through the air, with quarterbacks throwing for six touchdowns against an equal amount of interceptions.
Of course, that's why it's always smart to look past paper stats. The Ravens have done an exceptional job at getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks and limiting yards after the catch, a fact that can be shown by yards per attempt figures.
Here is a look at the yards per attempt by each of the Ravens' opposing quarterbacks this postseason, juxtaposed by their regular-season totals:
|Quarterback||Regular Season YPA||YPA vs. Ravens|
On average, opposing quarterbacks have thrown for 1.57 yards per attempt fewer than what they have in the postseason. When considering that two of those quarterbacks (Manning and Brady) are among the five best ever to play the position, that's astounding.
Keeping that trend going will be absolutely critical against Kaepernick. He averaged an astounding 8.3 yards per attempt during the regular season, and that figure has risen to 9.5 in January. If the Ravens can keep that 1.57 YPA hold, it would take Kaepernick down to right around eight yards per completion, still exceptional but not otherworldly.
In a game that should be separated by just a few points, that difference could be paramount.
Make Big Plays in the Passing Game
Though they clamped down in the second half, the 49ers' coverage weaknesses reared their ugly head against Atlanta. Julio Jones caught seven passes for 135 yards in the first half, destroying Tarell Brown and Dashon Goldson in particular. The Falcons deep threat burned Goldson down the field for a 46-yard touchdown early in the first quarter and did the same on a 20-yard score to Brown in the second.
Overall, both men struggled mightily the entire game. Falcons receivers caught 11 of the 14 passes thrown Brown's way, torching the 49ers' top cornerback for 126 yards, per Pro Football Focus.
Goldson, meanwhile, gave up an embarrassing 92 yards, as Atlanta wideouts caught all four of the passes thrown in his main coverage zone.
In other words, the 49ers have a great defense—not an impenetrable one. That should come as a huge relief to Joe Flacco and the Ravens, who will desperately need big plays to stay in this game.
Not to sound like a broken record here, but you can tell a lot about how a game went for Baltimore based on Flacco's yard per attempts average. The Ravens were 2-5 in games where Flacco averaged fewer than seven yards per attempt and 8-1 in contests where he was above that threshold.
As a whole, Flacco averaged 8.1 yards per attempt in wins, 5.5 in losses. This is the part of the program where you tell me all quarterbacks' stats drop in losses, and this is true.
But Flacco's variance is jarring. Of the 10 other starting quarterbacks during this postseason (Joe Webb doesn't qualify), only Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III, two rookies, had starker win-loss splits than Flacco.
If Flacco doesn't make big plays, his team does not win. With San Francisco's secondary showing it can be beaten, there should be hope for the Ravens and Flacco to have a nice day.
Hope Ray Lewis' Playoff Renaissance Continues
There's no other way to put it: The Ravens were a mess against the run heading into the postseason. Once the league's most talented and fear-evoking unit, Baltimore's front seven became a massive, injury-riddled deficiency in 2012.
Though the Ravens gave up a long run of only 31 yards this season, a number that ranked second in the NFL, teams could consistently matriculate their way down the field. Baltimore finished the regular season tied for 20th yardage-wise against the run, but ranked 26th according to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. That's an important distinction because Football Outsiders accounts for level of competition, weather and other factors not considered by standard statistics.
That's all changed during the playoffs. Baltimore has allowed less than four yards per carry against Denver and New England and hasn't given up a rushing touchdown yet this postseason.
In the least coincidental fact of all time, this ascent coincides with the return of Ray Lewis. Though he looked old and slow before a triceps injury ended his regular season, Lewis has seemingly returned to his 2000 form during the playoffs.
The future AARP card holder has made 44 tackles in three games during the playoffs, which is 15 more than any other defender.
With the 49ers undoubtedly breaking out the read-option, inverted veer and every other variation of a pistol-related play, Lewis' presence will be critical. He cannot look 37 years old.