Why the Ravens could win
1. Psst. Did you hear? After 17 seasons, Ray Lewis is retiring. Head coach John Harbaugh couldn’t have laid out a better postseason blueprint for his team than the one the Ravens’ inside linebacker-motivational leader rolled out for him on Jan. 2 when he told the football world “this will be my last ride.” The ride has turned into a victory tour as the Ravens have sandwiched double-figure wins over Indianapolis and at New England around a double-overtime classic in Denver.
2. It hasn’t reached the point where, quoth the Ravens, “never score,” but there’s no denying Baltimore’s defense has improved. After allowing 21.5 points per game during the regular season, the Ravens have yielded only 57 – and 14 came off two returns by the Broncos – in three postseason games against a murderer’s row of quarterbacks (Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady).
3 Admit it. You didn’t think Joe Flacco could do it (I sure didn’t). But the fact remains: Flacco has thrown eight TD passes with no interceptions in compiling a league-leading passer rating of 114.7 this postseason.
4. It’s more than “Hey Diddle Diddle, Ray Rice Up The Middle.” The Ravens are averaging 148.7 yards rushing per game during the postseason, a notable increase from their 118.8 yards during the regular season. Increased production from rookie backup Bernard Pierce, a revamped line and the late-season change in coordinators from Cam Cameron to Jim Caldwell are all factors. While rookie Justin Tucker has put his best foot forward for the Ravens (32-for-35 on field-goal attempts in the regular season and postseason), 14-year veteran David Akers has repeatedly stubbed his toe for the 49ers (30-for-44).
5. Things in San Francisco got so bad that, last month, the Niners signed and then released Billy Cundiff, whose work with the Ravens we observed in last year’s AFC Championship Game in New England.
6. No one’s comparing him to Bill Belichick (yet), but Ravens head coach John Harbaugh knows how to win at this time of year. While the fact that little brother Jim has gotten the 49ers into the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl in his first two years in the NFL cannot be ignored, the elder of Jack and Jackie Harbaugh’s two boys has guided the Ravens to at least one playoff win in each of his five seasons as their head coach and is 8-4 overall in the postseason.
Why the 49ers could win
1. The shotgun formation may have been a concern of the Ravens’ defense in the postseason games that got them here. Now, in Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers, the Ravens are about to face an all-new dynamic in the 49ers’ Pistol formation and read-option offense. Kaepernick has thrown for 496 yards and three touchdowns (with one intercep- tion, a 105.9 passer rating) and run for 202 yards and two TDs in the 49ers’ two playoff games.
2. The 49ers ranked fourth in the NFL both in defending the run and the pass during the regular season, third in overall defense, and allowed only 17.1 points per game. While they’ve had their problems during the first half of their two postseason wins (allowing 45 points), they’ve made adjustments and limit- ed Green Bay and Atlanta to a combined 10 points in the second half.
3. It’s time reality set in for Joe Flacco. During the course of the regular season, the Ravens’ hot hand was no better than the league’s 12th-ranked quarterback, wedged between the mediocrity of San Diego’s Philip Rivers and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton. Flacco’s passing yards and average gain (14th), completions and TD passes (15th), and passing percentage (19th) were all in the middle-of-the-pack range or worse.
4. It’s not as if the Ravens can win this game by merely containing Kaepernick. They also must defend the greatest wide receiver to ever play the game (apparently Randy Moss never heard of ex-Niner Jerry Rice). But seriously, folks, in addition to a mobile quarterback playing on a fast track (inside the Superdome), the Ravens must deal with an offensive line that may be the NFL’s best and ground game led by Frank Gore that ranked fourth in the league during the regular season.
5. Playing a more physical brand of football than the Patriots (who allowed that to happen to them in the postseason yet again) in the AFC Championship Game was one thing; outslugging the 49ers in the Super Bowl will be another. If the Ravens want to turn this into a heavyweight bout, the Niners will be more than willing to stand toe-to-toe with them in the middle of the ring.
6. Both franchises are unbeaten in Super Bowls, but no one’s about to compare the Ravens’ one win (in Super Bowl XXXV) to the Niners’ five (Super Bowls XVI, XIX, XXIII, XXIV and XXIX). Besides, it’s the NFC’s world, the AFC’s just living in it: The NFC has won the past three Super Bowls and four of the past five, two at the expense of the Patriots.
THE PICK: 49ers 31, Ravens 23
Kaepernick’s kissing his biceps; the Ravens can kiss it goodbye.