The San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens head into Super Bowl XLVII looking to answer critical questions that will decide the outcome of the game. The game should be close, as both teams come into the Super Bowl extremely hot.
In addition to being hot, there is little to separate the two teams. While much attention prior to the game will be given to the teams' physical and hard-hitting defenses, both teams feature potent offensive attacks that can beat you on the ground or in the air. They both have very good coaches that will put their teams in position to be successful.
The answers to these questions will decide which team will be awarded the Lombardi Trophy.
While Ray Lewis certainly brings a ton of intangibles to the Ravens defense, he needs to turn in a physically dominating performance against the 49ers. He's been a shell of his former self as age has caught up to him. With only one game left in his career, Lewis needs to dial up a vintage performance to help stop the 49ers' potent attack.
Lewis will have a tough time as he faces being matched up against Vernon Davis and Colin Kaepernick. If Lewis can't cover Davis, the Ravens will be forced to provide help from the secondary. That should open up things down the field for Randy Moss and Michael Crabtree. If Lewis can cover Davis, he takes away a big weapon and allows the Ravens to stay balanced defensively.
In the last two playoff games, the 49ers have absolutely unleashed Colin Kaepernick and their pistol formation. Against the Packers, they showed what Kaepernick can do with his feet if the defense doesn't set a proper edge. Against the Falcons, they showed what happens if you focus entirely on the edge, as LaMichael James and Frank Gore tore up the Falcons.
The Ravens struggled to defend Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins rushing attack in Week 14. They will need to use that experience and the 49ers' film in order to come up with a solid game plan to attack Kaepernick. Whether or not the Ravens can slow down Kaepernick will have a big impact on the outcome of the game.
After two weeks of dealing with the pressure, the media obligations and family, the players have to settle down and play football. Being the biggest stage for a football player, the Super Bowl often features a ton of nerves to start the game. The team that gets settled first could set the tone and have the upper hand in the game.
The game plan and play-calling for each team could be a big factor in who gets settled first. With the teams feeling each other out early, it could come down to who runs the ball well out of the gate. Both teams feature strong rushing attacks and could look to get comfortable pounding the opposing defense.
Since Justin Smith suffered his triceps injury, the 49ers have been a different defense. They have struggled to get to the quarterback and the lack of pressure has resulted in a ton of points for opposing teams. They gave up 31 points to the New England Patriots and 42 points to the Seattle Seahawks in back-to-back weeks. Since Smith returned against Green Bay, they have been better, but they've been vulnerable.
Joe Flacco has been nearly flawless in the postseason, throwing eight touchdowns and no interceptions. He's had plenty of time to throw throughout the Ravens playoff run and made defenses pay. The 49ers need to make Flacco uncomfortable and force mistakes.
Joe Flacco's performance on Sunday will be a big factor in the debate of whether he's an elite quarterback or not. He's played incredible football during the playoffs and carried the Ravens through to the Super Bowl. If he can deliver one more strong showing and the Lombardi Trophy, it will be hard to argue against Flacco as elite.
That said, this one game doesn't define Flacco's first five years in the league. He's proved he's an above average quarterback and a great playoff quarterback. If he fully intends on taking the elite status into next season, he needs a strong performance in his game.
Both teams feature strong rushing attacks with talented running backs. Frank Gore and Ray Rice are each capable of changing the game and helping their team win. Whichever player has a better performance could be the difference in the game.
While both teams are capable of running the ball, they each have very good, hard-hitting defenses. Part of the running game question also comes down to which team defends the run better.
The Ravens defense gave up quite a few yards by allowing 122.8 rushing yards per game, but only allowed 4.0 yards per carry. During the postseason, they've tightened their defense, allowing 128.3 yards per game, but for an average of 3.9 yards per game.
The 49ers defense has given up too much in the run game during their playoff run. They gave up 94.2 rushing yards per game and limited opposing teams to 3.7 yards per carry in the regular season. In their two playoff games, they gave up just 92.5 yards per game, but the opposing teams averaged 4.7 yards per carry.
The 49ers defense struggled two weeks ago against the Atlanta Falcons and their talented wide receivers. Julio Jones got deep multiple times early in the game and carved up the 49ers secondary. In this game, they have a tough test against Joe Flacco and deep-ball specialist Torrey Smith.
The Flacco-to-Smith combination has been deadly for the Ravens. In the postseason, they've hooked up eight times for 198 yards and two touchdowns. The 49ers need to put in a better performance and make sure Smith can't get behind them. If they can do this, it will tighten the field and make things more difficult for Flacco.
In both playoff games, the 49ers have been able to overcome slow starts to dictate play and win the game. Against the Packers, they got off to a terrible start as Colin Kaepernick threw a pick-six. The Packers were up 7-0 and 14-7 before the 49ers took complete control of the ball game. The Falcons went up 17-0 before the 49ers got it going.
In this game, against a solid offense and a physical defense, the 49ers really can't afford another slow start. They need to get out of the gates more smoothly, both on offense and defense. A fast start could mean a sixth Lombardi Trophy is heading to San Francisco.
Jacoby Jones scored on three returns this season as he added a big boost to the Ravens special teams unit. During the regular season, Jones averaged 9.2 yards per punt return and 30.7 yards per kickoff return. Jones was the second-best kick returner behind just Percy Harvin from the Minnesota Vikings.
In a tight game with the 49ers favored, Jones could be the one that changes the game for the Ravens. He can either do this by flipping field position in a tight game or breaking open the game with a special teams score.
David Akers has struggled mightily this season, as he only made 29 out of 42 field goal attempts for a career-low 69 percent. The lack of confidence in Akers caused the 49ers to sign Billy Cundiff before deciding that Akers was the better option. The uneasiness with Akers has carried into the postseason as he's hit one of two field goals.
Luckily for the 49ers, Akers' miss against the Falcons didn't cost them the game. With the pressure of the Super Bowl, the 49ers and their fans have to hope the game doesn't come down to Akers' left foot. If it does, the biggest question of the game might be whether or not Akers can make a crucial, game-deciding field goal.