Matchups for the Super Bowl between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in New Orleans:
When the Ravens (13-6) have the ball
When QB Joe Flacco (5) looks out from behind center Matt Birk (77) on Super Bowl Sunday, he could be seeing two things: $$$$, and the fiercest defense he's faced all season.
Flacco's contract is up after this game, and while it's a near cinch the Ravens won't let the five-year veteran leave, it's going to cost a few million bucks to keep him. A victory against San Francisco and its bevy of All-Pro defenders would add even more moolah to the pot.
This is one formidable challenge for Flacco because the Niners are more versatile than the defenses presented by Indianapolis, Denver and New England in the postseason.
Start with the league's best linebacking corps, featuring two All-Pros in Patrick Willis (52) and NaVorro Bowman (53). Aldon Smith (99) is considered a linebacker, but is a hybrid LB-DE and he led the NFC with 19½ sacks. Ahmad Brooks (55) comes off a spectacular second half in Atlanta.
But Flacco and his targets — WRs Anquan Boldin (81) and Torrey Smith (82), TE Dennis Pitta (88) and do-everything RB Ray Rice (27) — should be encouraged by what the Falcons accomplished in the first half. They found seams and gaps everywhere, and the 49ers' secondary must be stingier this time.
Boldin has been sensational on every route in the postseason (16 catches, 17.3-yard average, 3 TDs). CBs Carlos Rogers (22) and Tarell Brown (25) and Chris Culliver (29) will have a difficult time with the smart, physical Boldin.
Smith can get deep on anybody, so safeties Dashon Goldson (38), an All-Pro, and Donte Whitner (31) have to be sharp. In each playoff game, Smith has gotten open for a long pass, even if it wasn't a completion.
And the biggest deep ball Baltimore completed was the 70-yarder to tie the game at Denver late in regulation time. That was to WR Jacoby Jones (12).
Pitta against Willis, Bowman and the safeties is a juicy matchup, too.
So is the entire offensive line attempting to neutralize Aldon Smith and defensive linemen Justin Smith (94), Ike Sopoaga (90), Ray McDonald (91), and Ricky Jean Francois (95). The main chore will fall to LT Bryant McKinnie (78), who seems to have resurrected his career in the postseason, and RT Michael Oher (74). Right guard Marshal Yanda (73) is Baltimore's best blocker.
When the 49ers (13-4-1) have the ball
Everyone tries to run on Baltimore; all three opponents in the playoffs did so and the Niners will, too. The difference: San Francisco has, by far, the best running back in Frank Gore (21), best running QB in Colin Kaepernick (7), and best run blocking, led by left guard Mike Iupati (77) and left tackle Joe Staley (74) that the Ravens will face.
But the Ravens have the most physical and fundamentally sound front seven that San Francisco has seen in the playoffs. Ray Lewis (52), the 17-year linebacker playing his final game of a Hall of Fame quality career, looks like he is in his prime and has 44 tackles in the three playoff wins. Fellow LBs Dannell Ellerbe (59), Terrell Suggs (55) and rookie Courtney Upshaw (91) must be especially active in getting to the holes if San Francisco's line remains dominant.
To prevent the 49ers from winning in the trenches, DT Haloti Ngata (92), NT Terrence Cody (62) and DE Pernell McPhee (90) need to be stout.
Gore is complemented by rookie RB LaMichael James (23), who has a nice burst, and, of course, Kaepernick. The second-year QB set a record for the position with 181 yards rushing against Green Bay in the divisional round. He didn't run much against Atlanta, but presents a major challenge whenever he tucks in the ball.
Or when he is throwing it. Kaepernick isn't just a threat to use his Usain Bolt-style strides to break down defenses. His arm is strong and accurate, and he isn't timid about letting go into tight spots to connect with TEs Vernon Davis (85) and Delanie Walker (46), WRs Michael Crabtree (15) and Randy Moss (84).
Ravens pass rushers Suggs, DE Paul Kruger (99) and McPhee will need help containing Kaepernick, so watch for frequent blitzes from the secondary of safeties Ed Reed (20) and Bernard Pollard (31), CBs Cary Williams (29) and Corey Graham (24).
Controlling Davis is a key because he's a nightmare matchup for Baltimore's less-than-fast LBs.
The Niners could break some long plays in the secondary, too, because many of Baltimore's backs are mediocre tacklers. But Pollard will rock your world.
Baltimore has the edge here on returns and field goals. San Francisco gets the nod in punting.
All-Pro Jones led the league in kickoff returns with a 30.1 average and scored twice. He also ran back a punt for a TD.
Rookie Justin Tucker (6) has been a stud, making 30 of 33 field goals, including the winner in double overtime in Denver. But P Sam Koch (4) had too many low kicks that New England returned for good field position in the AFC title game.
The Ravens were solid on coverages during the season, but fell apart against Denver as Trindon Holliday ran back a punt and a kickoff for scores. They also struggled stopping Wes Welker's punt runbacks in New England.
San Francisco PK David Akers (2) has gone from All-Pro in 2011 to slumping this season and missed his only try against the Falcons. But the Niners have stuck with him.
Andy Lee (4) is among the top punters in the NFL. James and Ted Ginn Jr. (19) have breakaway capabilities on returns, but aren't consistent.
The Har-bowl is unique, but hardly a fluke. Both Harbaughs owe a strong debt to their dad, Jack, a lifelong coach who not only taught them how to play football, but how to teach it.
John's pro resume is record-setting: the only coach with wins in his first five postseasons. He was selected over Rex Ryan and several others to take over the Ravens in 2008 after making his mark as Philadelphia's special teams coordinator.
Unlike John, who did not play in the NFL, Jim quarterbacked 14 seasons with four teams after being selected in the first round of the 1987 draft by the Bears. He has been in coaching a relatively short time, but his meteoric rise took him to San Diego — the Toreros, not the Chargers — and Stanford, where he tutored Andrew Luck.
Jim Harbaugh was the 2011 NFL Coach of the Year as a rookie, guiding the Niners to the conference title game.
Both of them will make the difficult decisions that sometimes change the course of a season or career. John fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in December. Jim Caldwell took over and the offense, particularly Flacco, has been strong since.
Jim made the move to Kaepernick in November and we all know how that worked out.
Baltimore's additional boost has become tangible, actually, with the way the Ravens have performed at such a fevered pitch during Lewis' final postseason. Saying goodbye by giving him the Vince Lombardi Trophy to parade around is pretty darn motivating.
For the 49ers, a record-tying sixth Super Bowl — Pittsburgh also has six, but has been beaten twice, while San Francisco is 5-0 — and a first since the days of Steve Young is quite an inducement.
And, of course, each coach wants to sit atop the family tree.
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