Ray Rice was limited to 83 yards from scrimmage when the 49ers and Ravens clashed in 2011. (Photo: Mitch Stringer, USA TODAY Sports)
Super Bowl XLVII's matchup is set now that the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers have advanced to the big game. Here are five story lines to watch:
1. Har-Bowl: The pairing of the head coaching brothers will be the game's inescapable subplot. John (Ravens) and Jim (49ers) have 34 combined seasons in the NFL, including Jim's 15-year career as a quarterback.. Neither has a Super Bowl ring, though John was on Andy Reid's staff when the Philadelphia Eagles advanced to Super Bowl XXXIX after the 2004 season. Amazingly, neither Harbaugh brother has missed a postseason as a head coach, and John's Ravens have won at least one playoff game in each of his five seasons, a record. Both men are fiery, intellectual and close to their players but not afraid of decisions that invite criticism. But Jim's promotion of second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick and John's choice to fire offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in favor of Jim Caldwell both proved key in their teams' Super surges even if many initially questioned the detour caused by the coaches' route redirection. Don't be surprised to see more bold calls at the Superdome.
2. Passing of the torch: For years, San Francisco's Patrick Willis has played like a younger Ray Lewis while seeming to be the logical successor to the NFL's linebacking throne. The baton can officially pass in New Orleans, where the friends will meet in retiring Lewis' final game. Willis, who even wears No. 52 in honor of the Ravens legend, can cover every quadrant of the field the way Lewis once did and is already covered in hardware (six Pro Bowl nods, five first-team all-pro selections in six seasons). But the man known as "Sugar Ray" still thrives at analyzing the sweet science of the NFL and will doubtless unearth a few nuggets in his exhaustive film study that might be enough to garner him another ring on his way out the door.
3. QB or not to be: Baltimore's Joe Flacco hopes to exit the Super Bowl stage with the Lombardi Trophy putting the exclamation point on his proclamation that's he's among the NFL's top quarterbacks and deserves to be paid like one once his contract runs out after the game. Kaepernick is merely hoping to etch his name alongside Joe Montana and Steve Young in 49ers' lore. No pressure, kid, as those Hall of Famers combined for five championships and never lost a Super Bowl. To say Flacco and Kaepernick are a study in contrasts is somewhat short-sighted. They can both spin the ball courtesy of, arguably, the two strongest arms in the NFL. Kaepernick can also run like a gazelle, and just the threat he presents on read-option plays can be enough to paralyze a defense as the Atlanta Falcons learned in the NFC Championship Game. But Flacco has something Kaepernick does not, and that's extensive playoff experience. From the minute he first played for all the marbles as a rookie in 2008, Flacco has never seemed flustered by the postseason spotlight and is thriving in it now more than ever.
4. Defenses never rest: In an offseason survey of players conducted by NFL Network, four members of the Ravens defense (Lewis, Haloti Ngata, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs) were counted among the league's 20 best players, a short list that also included Willis and 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith. San Francisco cornerback Carlos Rogers and linebacker NaVorro Bowman were also voted into the top 100. Expect Niners safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner and pass rusher Aldon Smith to join this year's group. Both defenses stumbled at times this season, notably when Lewis, Suggs and Justin Smith were waylaid by injury. But with the possible exception of the Seattle Seahawks, you won't find units that are more physical, relentless or stacked with playmakers at every level.
5. Matchup to watch - Ravens RB Ray Rice vs. 49ers RB Frank Gore: They won't technically go head-to-head, but how effectively they barrel into those daunting defenses could dicatate Super Bowl XLVII's outcome. Gore capitalized on the specter of Kaepernick's loping runs vs. the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round by bursting through the cracks the Falcons offered while they strove to keep the quarterback corralled. Gore, who's quietly crafted a career that will put him into the Hall-of-Fame discussion, bolted for a pair of second-half TDs that punched his team's ticket to New Orleans. He'll need to do it again if Baltimore focuses more on his backfield mate than him. Like Gore, Rice runs, catches, blocks and executes the mental aspects of the game as well as any back in the league. But in Willis, Bowman and Justin Smith, Rice will face a slew of significant roadblocks. If he fails to navigate them, Whitner and/or Goldson will be able to roam into the zones where wideouts Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin would prefer to patrol in single coverage.
Why the Ravens will win: With glory, money, respect, reputation and Lewis' legacy at stake, Flacco is passing better than anyone in the playoffs (8 TDs, 0 INTs), bar none. And despite their pedigree, the Niners have proven plenty vulnerable through the air this postseason, partially because they're not creating enough pressure (two sacks). If Baltimore's revamped offensive line continues to bubble-wrap Flacco, Torrey Smith keeps blazing past defensive backs and unplugging the middle of the field and a fast-flowing defense lays down more punishing hits, Lewis will retire with both hands bejeweled while his teammates grab some long-sought immortality for themselves.
Why the 49ers will win: Kaepernick is a wild card even if his poise is more typical of a nine-year vet than a player with nine NFL starts. He could be a supernova in the making. And by restoring tight end Vernon Davis to the arsenal, he's also created another headache the Ravens must account for. But San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman must be eager to attack a Baltimore run defense that's allowing 128.3 yards per game in the playoffs, and that's against three teams with pocket passers. Logic would suggest the 49ers will do even more damage, and the extra defender Kaepernick commands could very well mean big gainers to Davis, Michael Crabtree or Randy Moss. Expect plenty of points in a game that could be more high-scoring than one might expect given these teams' defensive reputations.
Nate Davis, USA TODAY Sports