Matchups for the Super Bowl between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers on Feb. 3 in New Orleans:
Ravens (13-6) on O
When quarterback Joe Flacco (5) looks out from behind center Matt Birk (77) on Super Bowl Sunday, he could be seeing two things: dollar signs and the fiercest defense hes faced all season.
Flaccos contract is up after this game, and while its a near cinch the Ravens wont let the five-year veteran leave, its 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 theyve faced and beaten in Indianapolis, Denver and New England in the postseason.
Start with the leagues 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 linebacker-defensive end, and he led the NFC with 19½ sacks. Ahmad Brooks (55) is coming off a spectacular second half in Atlanta.
But Flacco and his targets wide receivers Anquan Boldin (81) and Torrey Smith (82), tight end Dennis Pitta (88) and do-everything running back 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, three touchdowns). Cornerbacks 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) will have to be sharp. In each playoff game, Smith has gotten open for a long pass, even if it wasnt a completion.
And the biggest deep ball Baltimore completed was the 70-yarder to tie the game at Denver late in regulation to wide receiver 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), Isaac Sopoaga (90), Ray McDonald (91) and Ricky Jean-Francois (95). The main chore will fall to left tackle Bryant McKinnie (78), who seems to have resurrected his career in the postseason, and right tackle Michael Oher (74). Right guard Marshal Yanda (73) is Baltimores best blocker.
49ers (13-4-1) on O
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 linebackers Dannell Ellerbe (59), Terrell Suggs (55) and rookie Courtney Upshaw (91) must be particularly active in getting to the holes if San Franciscos line remains dominant.
To prevent the 49ers from winning in the trenches, defensive Haloti Ngata (92), nose tackle Terrence Cody (62) and defensive end Pernell McPhee (90) need to be stout.
Gore is complemented by rookie running back 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 didnt run much against Atlanta but presents a major challenge whenever he tucks the football.
Or when he is throwing it. Kaepernick isnt just a threat to use his Usain Bolt-style long strides to break down defenses. His arm is strong and accurate, and he isnt timid about letting go into tight spots to connect with tight ends Vernon Davis (85) and Delanie Walker (46) and wide receivers Michael Crabtree (15) and Randy Moss (84).
Ravens pass rushers Suggs, defensive end 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) and cornerbacks Cary Williams (29) and Corey Graham (24).
Controlling Davis will be critical because hes a nightmare matchup for Baltimores less-than-fast linebackers.
The Niners could break some long plays in the secondary, too, because many of Baltimores backs are mediocre tacklers.
Pollard, however, 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 NFL in kickoff returns with a 30.1 average and scored twice. He also ran back a punt for a score.
Rookie Justin Tucker (6) has been a stud, making 30 of 33 field goals, including the winner in double overtime in Denver. But punter 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 Welkers punt returns in New England.
San Francisco placekicker David Akers (2) has gone from All-Pro in 2011 to slumping this season, and he 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 arent consistent.
The Harbowl XLVII 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 football.
Johns pro résumé 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 Philadelphias 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 championship 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.
Baltimores additional boost actually has become tangible 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.