The final touches are being put on Super Bowl XLVII.
If everything goes to form on Super Sunday at the Superdome, most expect the San Francisco 49ers to defeat the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.
As we all know, playing the perfect football game is difficult enough. Playing that game on the biggest stage of the season is nearly impossible.
Not that we haven’t seen examples in the past. It is worth noting that the last three Super Bowl champions—the 2009 New Orleans Saints, the 2010 Green Bay Packers and the 2011 New York Giants—did play turnover-free football in their victories.
So we present what could go right and what could go wrong for the Ravens and 49ers this Sunday evening. How these clubs handle adversity is probably much more important than how they handle success.
What’s been interesting about watching Joe Flacco during this postseason has been his command and confidence. It’s something we didn’t see as recently as the first half of the Wild Card Game vs. the Indianapolis Colts.
Since the fifth-year signal-caller started to throw the long ball effectively in the second half of the 24-9 win over the Colts, Flacco has looked like a different quarterback. He has thrown for eight scores and no interceptions in three postseason games, while completing just 54.8 percent of his passes.
Ideally, Flacco will give the 49ers defense a little more to think about and elevate his completion percentage by incorporating running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce and fullback Vonta Leach into the passing game. The trio has combined for only eight receptions in these playoffs but may be called on to test that Niners linebacking corps early and often.
That will loosen up the 49ers defense, which will make it easier for the strong-armed passer to eventually go downfield.
It’s safe to say that San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick has been pretty impressive in his two playoff starts, and he’s done it with his arm and his legs.
If the Ravens don’t guess correctly, the second-year pro could do to them what he did to the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons.
Lost in the 45-31 win over the Packers was Kaepernick’s performance through the air, which seemed to be overshadowed by his record 181 rushing yards and two touchdowns. He completed 17 of 31 attempts for 263 yards and two scores.
While he ran for only 21 yards vs. Atlanta on two attempts, he hit on 16 of 21 passes for 233 yards and a touchdown toss to tight end Vernon Davis. Ideally, Kaepernick will run the ball at least five or six times and complete at least 60 percent of his passes against the Ravens.
The 49ers' pass rush, led by Pro Bowl outside linebacker Aldon Smith, is more than capable of bringing the heat to Joe Cool.
Although Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has an 8-4 postseason record, this is his Super Bowl debut.
While the fifth-year performer has not thrown an interception in the playoffs, he does have one of the team’s three turnovers. During the regular season, Flacco put the ball on the ground nine times in 16 games and lost four of those fumbles.
Baltimore’s revamped offensive line has allowed only four sacks during this playoff run. But if the Niners can make Flacco uncomfortable in the pocket and perhaps a little impatient, the Ravens passer could be pressured into a few turnovers.
Even some of those long passes could wind up in the hands of the San Francisco secondary.
Although 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has wowed us at times this season, we sometimes forget that he is a second-year player.
We have also been reminded often this week that the Niners signal-caller will be making only the 10th start of his NFL career.
While Kaepernick hasn’t looked like the panicky type, this is the Super Bowl, and he is making his first appearance in the Big Game. Even the most experienced of quarterbacks have gotten a case of the jitters on this stage.
In two playoff games, Kaepernick has been sacked only twice and committed only one turnover. But it wouldn’t be a surprise to see those numbers equaled or surpassed in the first quarter against the savvy Ravens.
Then it will be interesting to see how he handles that kind of early adversity.
While Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has been getting deserved praise, he’s been far from a one-man show in the postseason.
John Harbaugh’s club has scored 90 points in its three playoff games, and the Ravens offense has scored three, four and four offensive touchdowns, respectively, in the wins over the Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos and New England Patriots.
The team’s 11 offensive touchdowns have been scored by six players, including a team-high three by wide receiver Anquan Boldin.
As far as efficiency, this is a Ravens club that has turned over the ball just 19 times in as many games this season, with three of those coming in the playoffs. After running back Ray Rice lost a pair of fumbles against the Colts and Flacco coughed up the ball vs. the Broncos, the team played turnover-free football against the Patriots.
It is safe to say that any performance that includes no turnovers would be ideal against the San Francisco defense, along with a few long pass plays from Flacco to Boldin, wideout Torrey Smith and perhaps tight end Dennis Pitta.
Only three teams in the league ran for more yards during the regular season than the San Francisco 49ers.
Of course, Jim Harbaugh’s club outdid itself in the NFC divisional playoffs vs. the Green Bay Packers by running for 323 yards, the fourth-highest total in a postseason game in NFL history. San Francisco rolled up 579 total yards in the 45-31 win.
Despite falling behind Atlanta in the NFC title game, the 49ers still ran for 149 yards in the 28-24 victory, running 29 times and passing 22.
All told, San Francisco has stuck to its game plan in both contests, running the ball more often than throwing it in both instances. When you have a one-two punch in the backfield like veteran running back Frank Gore and emerging rookie LaMichael James, it’s hard not to succeed.
If that isn’t a best-case offensive scenario, it’s hard to imagine what is.
While the Baltimore Ravens have taken to the air quite often during this postseason run, they haven’t forgotten what ultimately wins games.
That would be balance.
John Harbaugh’s club has maintained that through this postseason. In addition to those long passes by quarterback Joe Flacco, the Ravens' ground attack has averaged 148.7 yards per game. While it is a much smaller sample size, that's a marked improvement from a team that managed only 118.8 yards per contest on the ground during the regular season.
Still, this is a San Francisco defense that has given up only 185 yards rushing in its two playoff victories.
If the Ravens can’t get anything going on the ground against 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith and company, Baltimore’s long-distance passing attack could be derailed.
Although the San Francisco 49ers have managed to make it to the Super Bowl, they certainly would like to avoid another slow start.
An interception by quarterback Colin Kaepernick gave the Green Bay Packers a 7-0 lead in the divisional playoffs. A week later, the Niners trailed the Atlanta Falcons 17-0 before pulling off the greatest comeback ever in an NFC title game.
All told, San Francisco has been outscored a combined 24-7 in the first quarter of their two postseason victories.
So far, Jim Harbaugh’s talented team has been able to overcome those first-quarter issues. But the 49ers may find the Baltimore defense a lot more formidable if they manage to fall behind early once again.
Combine that with Kaepernick having to throw instead of wanting to throw, as well as an untimely turnover, and it could be a rough evening for the 49ers at the Superdome.
Talk about coming to play.
Due to several factors, it was a very un-Raven-like year for the Baltimore defense.
But that appears to be ancient history, as this unit has played solidly during this postseason run. John Harbaugh’s club has given up four offensive touchdowns in three playoff wins, three of those in the double-overtime victory at Denver.
The Ravens didn’t force many turnovers (25) during the regular season. But the team has eight takeaways during this playoff run, seven at the expense of quarterbacks Andrew Luck (two), Peyton Manning (three) and Tom Brady (two).
If this form holds, look for young Colin Kaepernick to be the next signal-caller to hand the Ravens a gift or two.
It’s been a tale of two halves for the 49ers defense this postseason.
In their playoff games, the Niners fell behind the Green Bay Packers (7-0) and Atlanta Falcons (17-0) but rallied from those deficits to win. In the first half of those contests, Jim Harbaugh’s club gave up 45 points, albeit one of Green Bay’s touchdowns was an interception return in the first quarter at the expense of Colin Kaepernick.
But in the second half, this same defense has allowed 10 points in two games, all in the win over Green Bay. The 49ers blanked the Falcons in the final 30 minutes of the NFC Championship Game.
How does Harbaugh’s team avoid another slow start? For Vic Fangio’s unit, stopping the Ravens' ground attack from the start and making quarterback Joe Flacco throw much more often than he plans to can only mean good things.
If San Francisco can turn its pass rush loose earlier rather than later, perhaps linebacker Aldon Smith can end his sack drought.
It’s still odd to think that the Baltimore Ravens have more issues on defense than offense.
But that’s the reality of the situation. The biggest issue has been the inability to consistently stop teams on the ground. During the regular season, the Ravens set a franchise record by giving up 122.8 yards per game on the ground.
Despite three wins, Baltimore is actually giving up even more yards rushing in these playoffs, allowing 128.3 yards per contest.
We know that whether they are winning or losing, the 49ers don’t plan on abandoning their ground attack (at least we don’t think so, given recent history). That could be bad news for a Ravens unit that could be in trouble if it doesn't come up with some big stops, meaning a takeaway or two.
While the 49ers defense has the loftier credentials, this group hasn’t necessarily played that way of late, especially not in the postseason.
Including their two playoff wins, Jim Harbaugh’s team has allowed as many offensive touchdowns in its last five outings (16) as it did in its first 13 games. The Niners have surrendered 28.8 points per game in their last five contests, twice as much as they did (14.2) in their first 13 outings.
Although quarterback Colin Kaepernick and company have shown the ability to score often, if the 49ers dig themselves too big of a hole or constantly find themselves in chase mode, they could be forced to alter their game plan.
For what it’s worth, the largest deficit overcome to win a Super Bowl is only 10 points, done first by the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XXII (over the Denver Broncos) and more recently by the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV (over the Indianapolis Colts).
Rookie placekicker Justin Tucker proved to be a major find for the Ravens.
The undrafted pro from Texas made all 42 PATs and was 30-of-33 on field goal attempts during the regular season. In three postseason games, Tucker has yet to miss a kick.
The rookie specialist also finished fifth in the league with 49 touchbacks and has added eight more during this playoff run.
While the Ravens hope to keep 49ers speedster Ted Ginn pinned down, John Harbaugh is hoping Pro Bowl return artist Jacoby Jones continues to produce. He is more than capable of making life easier for the Baltimore offense with a few big plays.
49ers return specialist Ted Ginn knows a little something about returning a kick for a touchdown in a bowl.
The former Ohio State Buckeye had his moment in the 2007 BCS title game when he took the opening kickoff the distance in what proved to be a loss to the Florida Gators.
For the Niners’ sake, here’s hoping that only half of history repeats itself.
Thanks in large part to Pro Bowl punter Andy Lee, the 49ers are among the best in the league at covering kicks. These units have outdone themselves in the playoffs. Their two opponents have combined to return five punts for a total of six yards.
Jim Harbaugh could win the battle of field position early, putting points on the board and keeping the pressure on the Ravens to play catch-up.
If 49ers return artist Ted Ginn does his best Trindon Holliday imitation, it could be a long day and an even longer offseason for the Baltimore Ravens.
Everyone will remember that in the double-overtime win over the Denver Broncos in the AFC divisional playoffs, John Harbaugh’s team gave up a pair of touchdowns to Holliday on a 90-yard punt return and 104-yard kickoff return.
While the Ravens have shown the ability to steadily put points on the board, they can least afford to give up a score while their defense is on the sidelines.
It will also be interesting to see if steady punter Sam Koch can pin the Niners deep. Like Holliday, Ginn has been known to return a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in the same game. He did it in Week 1 of 2011 vs. the Seattle Seahawks in Jim Harbaugh’s first game as 49ers head coach.
It looked like it was going to be business as usual for 49ers placekicker David Akers in 2012.
On opening day at Lambeau Field, the record-setting specialist tied the NFL record with a 63-yard field goal in a win over the Green Bay Packers. It was a nice start for Akers, who set league records for field-goal attempts (52) and field goals (44) the previous year.
But it’s been a much different story this season. Akers has missed nearly one-third of his field goal attempts, connecting on just 29 of 42 tries during the regular season and one of two in the playoffs.
If the San Francisco offense bogs down in the red zone and Akers is called on to get the job done, it will be interesting indeed.
Also keep in mind that during the regular season, the Niners were 31st in the league in average yards per kickoff return allowed. That’s not the kind of stat you’re looking for when having to deal with the likes of Ravens Pro Bowler Jacoby Jones.