Super Bowl XLVII: Key Storylines, Matchups and Predictions for Ravens vs. 49ers
While all Super Bowls are packed to the brim with storylines, few in recent history have more interesting angles than Super Bowl XLVII, which pits the Baltimore Ravens against the San Francisco 49ers.
In the following slides, we'll touch on storylines of every flavor—from the cliched to the once-in-a-generation—while providing predictions for each one.
Spreading Out the 49ers in the Passing Game
Early in the NFC Championship Game, the Atlanta Falcons moved the football up and down the field by spreading out the 49ers and attacking both underneath and over the top. The idea was to expose San Francisco's man-to-man, two-safety high look with overload receiving sets.
The Ravens might not have a trio of Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez to attack the 49ers with, but the Baltimore offense does have a hot quarterback who will threaten the San Francisco safeties deep early and often.
If the 49ers overcompensate, Baltimore could have a field day working Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta underneath soft coverage.
Joe Flacco is having one of the best postseasons at his position in recent history, which might force the 49ers to get creative. With Flacco firing on all cylinders once again, Boldin catches at least eight passes in a possession role against two deep safeties.
Matt Birk vs. 49ers' Interior Defense
Center Matt Birk is likely to figure heavily into the outcome of next Sunday's Super Bowl.
Against the Patriots in the AFC title game, he helped keep Vince Wilfork and the rest of New England's very good interior defense at bay. Late in the game, Birk was getting to the second level and putting a lid on both Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo to help melt away clock.
The Ravens have rushed for 446 yards this postseason, but the 49ers represent a difficult matchup on the ground for any offense. San Francisco has a physical defensive line that allows Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman—the game's premier duo of inside linebackers—to go to work.
Birk could really struggle in this matchup, especially in the run game.
Read Option: Pick Your Poison
The 49ers have breathtakingly displayed the dual nature of the read option this postseason.
When the Green Bay Packers crashed down on San Francisco's running backs in the divisional round, the result was an NFL-record 181 rushing yards from quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
A week later, the Falcons rightfully did everything in their power to keep Kaepernick from getting to the outside. The 49ers responded by giving the football to Frank Gore and LaMichael James and letting the backs do the dirty work inside.
The moral of the story here is that the read option has an answer to most everything opposing defenses wants to do. Whether they like or it not, coordinators have to pick their poison when going against Kaepernick's version of the offense.
Even with two weeks to prepare, it's difficult to see the Ravens being completely ready to stop the 49ers' version of the read option. The look simply has too many wrinkles.
Defenses have to be retrained in playing the run, which is very difficult to do in this amount of time. Expect Kaepernick and the 49ers to continue riding the read option in New Orleans.
Vonta Leach vs. 49ers' Interior Defense
Believe it or not, there was once a time when the NFL witnessed epic battles between fullbacks and middle linebackers every Sunday. Now, those wars are rare.
Super Bowl Sunday might just feature one.
The Ravens, who run the 12 personnel (one tight end, two running backs) more than most, love to line up Leach ahead of Rice in the I-formation and pound away at opposing defenses. One part of Leach's job is to get to the second level and remove the inside linebacker's ability to tackle his running back.
Facing Leach in the Super Bowl will be both Willis and Bowman, who have developed into the game's most fearsome interior tandem. The result could be an old-school fight inside.
If the Ravens are going to have any chance to be consistently effective on the ground, Leach needs to be the aggressor against Willis and Bowman. The two are equally dominant against the run, even when they have to shed blocks inside.
If there's any fullback who can handle the task, it's Leach. He could be a huge X-factor in the game.
Risk or Redemption for David Akers?
The 49ers appear to be comfortable rolling the dice with David Akers, who missed 13 kicks during the regular season and then clanked a game-tying field goal off the upright in Atlanta last week.
He hasn't cost them a chance at the ultimate prize yet, but you have to wonder if that might happen on the biggest stage. That said, Akers can erase each of his mishaps this season with a strong Super Bowl.
Will the veteran kicker be the goat of a Super Bowl loss or a major player in a championship?
One thing is for certain: No one is going to feel comfortable if Akers is lining up for a game-winning field goal next Sunday.
The 49ers have mostly covered up the mistakes of Akers this season, but I don't think they will have that luxury in the Super Bowl. The game appears close enough on paper for special teams to be the deciding factor.
One way or another, Akers' left leg will play a big part in the final outcome.
The Overplayed Storylines
Of course, we would be remiss without mentioning the storylines you will continue to hear plenty about over the next week.
Final Game of Ray Lewis
One of the greatest linebackers of all time will finish his career on the biggest stage. But will the 49ers' read option make Lewis look foolish in his final game?
San Francisco is big and powerful up front, and Colin Kaepernick and LaMichael James are among the fastest players at their respective positions.
Lewis has a big test in front of him at the Super Bowl.
Harbaugh Brothers Face Off
As you certainly already know, no brothers have ever faced off as head coaches in the Super Bowl. For all we know, it might never happen again.
The beauty of the matchup is more in style than in rarity. The Harbaugh brothers each bring rough-and-tough football teams to the table. The Thanksgiving game in 2011 was as hard-hitting as any that season.
Expect another black-and-blue contest in the Super Bowl.
The Rise of Joe Flacco
Now, Flacco can silence all of the doubters for good and increase the millions of dollars he's going to get from Baltimore this offseason by bringing the franchise a second Super Bowl win.