The narratives surrounding this matchup run deeper than Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh. Outside of the bro-down, we’re looking at a pair of filthy quarterbacks, an evolved 49ers offense, two violent defenses, Ray Lewis’ insane warrior spirit, and more.
From a statistical standpoint, the 49ers have this game sewed up. For example, they finished the season fifth and second in the Football Outsiders’ offensive and defensive efficiency ratings. The Ravens came in at 13 and 19. However, if games were played on paper, the Ravens would be 1-2 in the playoffs.
The 49ers and Ravens are known for their respective defenses, but in a surprising twist, my most compelling factor in Sunday’s game has nothing to do with that side of the ball. This is like the time Lost did that crazy thing no one was expecting.
Instead, I’m going with the two guys under center.
I wrote about the 49ers and their dominance back in September. Most of that story holds up fine, but there’s one part that holds up about as well as anything the nu metal genre produced between 1998 and 2002. I’m talking about the Alex Smith section.
Alex Smith, 49ers quarterback, died in week nine, while Alex Smith, 49ers clipboard holder, was born. Smith involuntarily took a step back so the offense could take a step forward.
With Smith concussed, Colin Kaepernick laid claim to the starting job. In doing so, he unlocked a whole new chapter of the 49ers’ playbook. They stopped having to rely on shot plays to pick up big gains through the air, and their running game became twice as scary.
Kaepernick spent his college career orchestrating head coach Chris Ault’s pistol offense at Nevada. He’s now doing the same thing in San Francisco.
Kaepernick’s ability in the pistol offense has allowed the 49ers to add a read-option wrinkle to their ground attack. Basically, Kaepernick takes the snap, scans the defense, and decides whether to hand the ball off or to keep it for himself. It’s simple in theory, but making the correct reads and capitalizing off of them can have a high learning curve.
A gazelle doesn’t move as fast and beautifully as Kaepernick does. Yet, the plays he makes with his arm are equally as impressive as the ones he makes with his legs.
A former baseball pitcher, Kaepernick was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 2009. It was either pitch for the Cubs or get abused by 250-pound linebackers every Sunday; he made the right choice.
No. 7’s arm strength only has one equivalent in the NFL. At times it can even work against him. He likes to put heat on every ball he throws, which can upset open wide receivers going across the middle. Despite that – and the occasional happy feet in the pocket – he’s been fantastic at getting the football where it needs to go.
Oh yeah, the one guy with an arm as powerful as Kaepernick’s? That’d be Joe Flacco.
Flacco is a stud. He probably won’t steal Tom Brady’s UGG sponsorship out from under him, but he will outplay him in AFC Championship Games.
Flacco’s composure is off the charts. A mediocre regular season didn’t detour him from exploding in the playoffs. His postseason numbers are sick: 853 yards, eight touchdowns, zero interceptions, and over nine yards an attempt.
Nobody throws the long ball better than Flacco, and the Ravens aren’t afraid to let him loose. Although, if the 49ers keep safeties deep, he’s proven he can cut teams up in the middle with darts to Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta.
But you can bet on a few deep strikes to Torrey Smith. “Torrey Smith fly routes” are the new “Joey Galloway deep post routes”. I could sit and watch Smith run fly’s in an empty practice facility. Speed really does kill.
Kaepernick and Flacco are two young and dangerous quarterbacks who are similar in talent, but very different in style. I think their play will be the most interesting and important aspect of the game.
As stated before, these are violent defenses. Both units give Tackling 101 lessons every Sunday. They are not without faults, though.
The 49ers struggled to get pressure in their conference game. Most of the time they sent just four rushers in order to avoid getting torched by Matt Ryan. This plan worked as a stopgap, but the pocket stayed clean enough for Ryan to lay 24 first half points on them. They can’t let Flacco have that kind of a head start.
The Ravens suffered from poor linebacker play against the Patriots. Paul Kruger, Ray Lewis, Dannell Ellerbe, and Terrell Suggs all had pretty whatever games. That group’s play needs to improve if they don’t want Kaepernick, LaMichael James, and Frank Gore to bulldoze.
The Ray Lewis story is unreal. He’s the greatest linebacker of all time and a second ring would highlight what an incredible leader and motivator he’s become. I put it that way because, minus all of his intangibles, the current version of Lewis is an average football player.
Lewis is nearly useless in coverage and his heralded double-digit tackle totals are a bit hollow. He’s a solid run-stopper but has trouble getting penetration nowadays. His issues were amplified against the Patriots, whose linemen beat him up at the second level.
To emphasize this point, I’ll put Lewis’ 14-tackle day in Foxboro against Aldon Smith’s single-tackle game in Atlanta. A glance at the box score would suggest Lewis was better. A glance at the game tape would show what a disruption Smith was to the Falcons’ running game in addition to all of the hurries he tallied.
On the other hand, only two of Lewis’ 14 tackles were defensive stops near scrimmage, while the rest were made downfield and had little impact. Don’t be fooled into thinking Lewis is anywhere close to the same guy he was when he played his first Super Bowl in 2000.
The 49ers and Ravens present an endless list of story options for the media. But it’s the potential game of football these two teams could have that gets me amped. John Harbaugh rooming with Brian Pillman (former WWE wrestler and lunatic) in college is a close second, of course.
I have no stone cold guarantee pick for Sunday. I’ll say that the 49ers should win, and it is likely that they will. And the final score is likely to be 27-20. And I will most likely cry the second Randy Moss touches the Lombardi Trophy.