Super Bowl XLVII is still a week away, but it's never too early to make predictions.
The AFC champion Baltimore Ravens and NFC champion San Francisco 49ers will kick off their much-anticipated battle for NFL superiority inside the Superdome in New Orleans on Feb. 3. But before they do, let's take an early look at some stars set to deliver on football's grandest stage.
Here are my predictions for players poised to become Super Bowl XLVII's top performers.
Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens, LB
In what will be his last game as a Raven, middle linebacker Ray Lewis is sure to play lights-out from start to finish, win or lose.
MVP of Super Bowl XXXV, Lewis leads all playoff tacklers with 44 combined through three postseason games. To put Lewis' defensive dominance this January into perspective, though, the second-leading postseason tackler is Lewis' teammate Corey Graham, with 26.
I look for Lewis to set the tone for Baltimore's defense early against San Francisco, picking up tackles in bunches and forcing at least one game-changing turnover.
Projection: 15 tackles, one interception
Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers, RB
Frank Gore is a load with the ball in his hands, and he'll be going up against a Baltimore Ravens defense that was gashed by opposing runners over the course of the regular season.
Although I expect Ray Lewis' presence in the middle of the field to make a big difference on Super Sunday, fans should still expect another solid game from Gore, who has rushed for 209 yards and three touchdowns in San Francisco's two playoff wins this January.
This stat from ESPN Stats & Info on Twitter shows just how strong the Niners have been this postseason on the ground offensively:
49ers have rushed for 236.0 yards per game in 2 postseason games. Only team to finish a postseason better (2+ games) is 1941 Bears (242.0).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 27, 2013
Projection: 20 carries, 95 yards, one touchdown
Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens, QB
Baltimore Ravens underrated signal-caller Joe Flacco has been torching opposing defenses this postseason, connecting on deep pass after deep pass to lead all playoff passers in 2013.
The fifth-year quarterback has more passing yards (853) and touchdowns (eight) than any other quarterback in the playoffs. Flacco's 114.7 passer rating is also best in these playoffs. More importantly, Flacco is the only playoff starter who has yet to toss a pick this winter.
Considering that the 49ers secondary has given up a combined 653 yards and five touchdowns through the air in two playoff games already, I'm expecting a Super Bowl MVP-like performance from Flacco.
All indications are that he and the Ravens' vaunted aerial assault will be difficult to slow on the speedy surface of the Superdome.
Projection: 20-of-35, 260 yards, two touchdowns
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