With so much unparalleled hype leading up to Sunday’s matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, the fact that the game must still be played seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle a bit.
The battle of the brothers (John and Jim Harbaugh), Ray Lewis’ impending retirement and the deer-antler spray saga (via Will Carroll of Bleacher Report), Randy Moss proclaiming G.O.A.T. status over Jerry Rice and 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver’s homophobic mini-rant have all reached unprecedented waters in overshadowing the NFL’s crown jewel.
Come game time, however, this matchup—in addition to the talent that will be on the field—has the capability of surpassing this most interesting affair that we all know as Super Bowl Week.
The Ravens and 49ers bring to the table a similar recipe for success: Control the game with a sound rushing attack, protect the football and play stout defense. Throw in names like Colin Kaepernick, Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Vernon Davis, Aldon Smith and Ed Reed, and this Super Bowl could go down as one of the best yet.
Here are five bold predictions for Sunday’s action.
Torrey Smith is the Baltimore Ravens’ source for the home-run ball. With Smith boasting a career yards-per-reception average of over 17, the San Francisco 49ers must pull out all the stops in preventing the wideout from getting into his breaks cleanly and hitting the third level with ease.
The problem here is that the Ravens offense is balanced enough to keep San Francisco from keying on any one player.
Baltimore has done a fantastic job this postseason of keeping running back Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce fresh out of the backfield, and Joe Flacco also has a good rapport with fellow targets Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta.
Though not quite as dangerous as the Atlanta Falcons' trio of Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, who torched the 49ers for 26 catches, 360 yards and three touchdowns in the NFC Championship Game, the fact that the Ravens have threats at every level will keep San Francisco guessing.
Boldin and Co. may get the ball more on Sunday, but watch for Smith—who hauled in a 59-yard touchdown pass in the win against the Denver Broncos a few weeks back—to have a couple of favorable looks downfield.
Since stating that this would be his last hurrah prior to the start of the postseason, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis has played like a man possessed.
In three playoff games, Lewis has made 44 tackles—which ironically was his number of solo tackles during an injury-plagued 2012 season. Though only 25 of his postseason tackles have been solo, the linebacker has proven that he still has a nose for the ball 17 years into his career.
The San Francisco 49ers are a run-first team that utilizes a short passing game to move down the field. This will keep the majority of the plays in front of Lewis, allowing him to be involved in most of the action on Sunday.
Though most of his plays these days are routine and lack the flair for the dramatic, this is the type of matchup Lewis could thrive in.
Though the San Francisco offense has gotten a little fancier since Colin Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith at quarterback, it is still fairly simple to break down, utilizing the run to set up the pass. That will not change come Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens allowed 122.8 rushing yards per game on 4.0 yards per carry, as well as 15 rushing touchdowns, in the regular season. In three postseason games, Baltimore is allowing 128.3 rushing yards per game on 3.9 yards per carry with no scores.
While the trend seems to have carried over into the playoffs, the Ravens will have their hands full with Colin Kaepernick, Frank Gore and Co.
In the 49ers’ two playoff wins, the team totaled 72 rushes, 472 yards (6.6 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns; those numbers include Kaepernick’s 181-yard performance against the Green Bay Packers.
With Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Randy Moss to complement the 49ers’ rushing attack, this team should be able to move the ball with relative ease on Baltimore’s much slower defense—with most of the success coming out of the backfield.
In 19 total games this season, the Baltimore Ravens have allowed 42 sacks. Whether because of protection issues, deviating from the run or Joe Flacco holding on to the ball too long, this could be an issue come Sunday against the 49ers.
Outside linebacker Aldon Smith had already tallied 19.5 sacks just 13 games into the 2012 season, and talk of him breaking Michael Strahan’s single-season record was rampant. Since then, however, the talented second-year pass-rusher has failed to get to the opposing quarterback—including in the team’s two postseason victories.
While the 49ers are loaded on the defensive side of the ball, led by linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman and defensive lineman Justin Smith, the main concern for the Ravens will be to prevent the other Smith from disrupting Flacco’s pocket.
Balancing out the offense with a healthy dose of Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce should keep San Francisco guessing more than it wants to. It will also afford the receivers more time to develop into their routes, giving Flacco less to worry about while avoiding Smith.
Both the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers feature some of the more talented offensive names the NFL has to offer. But let’s face it—neither of these teams cares about the number it can put up on the scoreboard. It is all about the opposition simply not scoring as many points.
While this game could go either way—high-scoring affair or grind-it-out contest—the similar approach that the Ravens and 49ers employ should lend itself to a slower pace. Don’t worry, though; there will be plenty of excitement to keep us all engaged.
The 49ers allowed the Atlanta Falcons to roll up 24 points in the first half of the NFC Championship Game, only to shut down their potent offensive attack completely in the second half.
Though the Ravens aren’t as predictable as the Falcons, they are far less dangerous on offense. This should allow the 49ers to stay within their scheme throughout the entire game.
Baltimore held the highest-scoring team in the NFL to just 13 points in the AFC title game. The New England Patriots looked flat, and Tom Brady appeared flustered with his back against the wall; the Ravens capitalized with two key interceptions.
With these teams as similar as they are in how they go about their business, it should result in a chess-like atmosphere on the field.
Points will obviously have to be scored to decide the winner, but don’t be surprised if they come at a premium here, with guys like Aldon Smith, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Justin Smith, Ray Lewis, Patrick Willis, Ed Reed and Dashon Goldson leading the charge.
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