Fifteen weeks have passed since the all-time great Ray Lewis was injured with a season-ending triceps injury. He was out for the season. The Ravens were in trouble. Lewis’s career was over. Or was it? He returned in the Wildcard Round game against the Indianapolis Colts. In that game, Lewis dominated, racking up the most tackles for the Ravens in a highly energized performance, in which the Ravens won handily against the rebuilding Colts. Many doubted the energy would last for the Ravens. They have proved everyone wrong with wins over the Broncos and Patriots, led by two of the best quarterbacks of the generation, both on the road. Now they find themselves in the biggest game of all, against a worthy foe.
The 49ers are one of the league’s most stacked rosters. Led by coach Jim Harbaugh and sensational young QB Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers are a matchup nightmare for whoever they face. Although they have been vulnerable at times this season, they have been very powerful in the postseason. Not many would have thought that the 49ers would be in the Super Bowl after Alex Smith suffered a concussion in a Week 10 tie with the Rams. Harbaugh made a tough decision to switch to Kaepernick permanently, despite Alex Smith playing very well all season. Kaepernick was too young and inexperienced they said. While football fans were split on the issue of whether or not Kaepernick should have been named the starter, no one can deny he has answered the call since then. He went 5-2 as a starter in the regular season, and has won both of his playoff games, one of them on the road. Now Jim and John Harbaugh will meet with their respective squads on February 3rd. Who will win?
Baltimore has quite the challenge ahead in defeating the 49ers. They have to contend with a unique quarterback, a dominant running back, explosive receivers, a very good offensive line, an all-pro tight end, a stout defensive line, the best linebacker corps in the league, all topped off with solid DB play. How are they going to crack that nut? I think they should start in the film room. Look at the teams who beat the 49ers or gave them trouble the most and see what they did to beat the 49ers. The Rams tied with and beat the 49ers, and the Seahawks split meetings with them. Do not forget how the Vikings and Giants dominated the 49ers. Looking at the film can show the Ravens how to score on the 49ers, since Alex Smith was the QB during half of those games. The Seahawks and Rams did beat the 49ers after Smith was benched though.
The Ravens should have some goals to achieve if they want a shot at the 49ers. First and foremost, they must dominate the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. On offense, they cannot allow the 49ers defensive line clog up running lanes or keep the linebackers clean. On defense, the Ravens have to clog up areas Gore can run, but also stay disciplined. The Ravens have good linebackers themselves; they need to make plays. The 49ers did allow more sacks than the Ravens this season, but Alex Smith played half of the season, and he isn’t as mobile as Kaepernick. Both teams can generate sacks with great pass rushes. The 49ers have the Smith-Smith combo, while the Ravens can get at you with Suggs, Kruger, or Ngata.
Offensively, the Ravens need to keep making big plays. They were 3rd in the league in big plays. San Francisco’s defense is stout on all levels, so this will be even more important. I fully expect Caldwell to take shots early and often, particularly when the Ravens are around the 50 yard line. This may not be too tough if Flacco gets enough time. He has several good targets in Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin, and Torrey Smith. Flacco almost threw for 4000 yards this season, with 22 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. He had five 300 yard games, and completed 40 passes over 25 yards. One of the reasons he has been playing so well was because of the strong running game led by Ray Rice. Ray Rice rushed for 1143 yards, with limited opportunities behind Cam Cameron’s pass happy offense. The running isn’t the only thing that makes Rice so dangerous. He had 478 receiving yards, totaling 1621 yards. He was 4th in receiving yards by running backs, and second in catches (61). Surely slowing Rice down will be a focus of the 49ers.
Flacco has two dependable receivers who excel at different things. Anquan Boldin is a veteran with plenty of playoff experience. He has strong hands and will fight for the ball every time. In addition, he runs excellent routes, leading to an extra degree of precision that Flacco can match. On the other hand, Torrey Smith is a speedster with improved catching ability. He can burn you in so many ways, stretching the field for another receiver to get some looks underneath. Make no mistake; he will get the ball deep at some point in the game.
On defense, the Ravens need to stay disciplined to deal with Kaepernick. He is too fast to take the wrong angles, but the Ravens are a veteran defense with plenty of playoff experience. Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are capable of making adjustments, and not much will get over on them. If the Ravens can cause some negative plays, and get off of the field on 3rd down, they can play the game at their pace and on their terms. The best way to accomplish those goals is to stop the read option attack. They need to maintain gap control and seal the edges. The cornerbacks will need to tackle well, as Kaepernick may be able to get by them if they have bad technique. This will be difficult because the 49ers are averaging 5.1 yards per carry. If they can force a 3rd and long, getting pressure on Kaepernick will force throwaways and inaccurate throws.
Special teams play is always underestimated, but this is an area in which the Ravens have a huge advantage. They have a few deadly returners, as well as the sensational rookie kicker, Justin Tucker. Tucker went 30/33(90.9%) this season, a rookie record. On the contrary, the 49ers have shown vulnerability returning and kicking. David Akers missed 13 field goals this season, down a huge amount from any point in his illustrious career. He does not seem to be confident right now, and this could greatly affect not only his game, but the little Harbaugh’s decisions.
Both teams have good punters, but I would have to give the slight edge to Andy Lee of the 49ers. It is my firm belief that the game will come down to special teams.
The 49ers have their own focuses though. They will not just roll over and let the Ravens get the Lombardi trophy. On offense, they need to play methodically and tire out the Ravens older squad. Running the ball with Gore early and often can help this, even if they do not have early success with it. If Kaepernick can get in some runs, then they can mentally drain the Ravens as well. This will inevitably open up the play action pass. Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, and Vernon Davis would love to run the play action, so establishing the run becomes doubly important.
The 49ers need to convert on 3rd downs, because they can keep the Ravens defense on the field. Neither team makes many mistakes, but tiring out the Ravens would be a huge plus. Also, Harbaugh probably will not trust Akers fully this game, so avoiding 4th down is crucial. This brings me to the next point. When in the red zone, the 49ers need touchdowns, not field goals. Although Justin Tucker is accurate, the Ravens scored a lot of points this season. Akers attempted 42 kicks during the regular season, nine more than Tucker.
Speaking of the number nine, both teams are +9 in turnover margin. Turnovers can be huge in this game, but neither team makes many mistakes. Ray Rice has had some fumbling issues the past couple of games. This is something the 49ers can take advantage of.
On defense, the 49ers need to pressure Flacco. It doesn’t matter which gap the pressure comes from, Flacco isn’t Vick. Don’t get me wrong, he is a strong guy and can be tough to bring down sometimes. However, if the 49ers can harass him all game, he will become more timid and throw more dump offs. This will run counter to how the Ravens want to play in regards to big plays. Getting pressure should not be too difficult with Justin Smith freeing up Aldon Smith to make plays. This can cause the Ravens to utilize an extra blocker, such as a tight end or running back. If they do that, that will be one less receiver for Flacco to target. Running up the middle will be difficult with Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman leading the charge in there. Ahmad Brooks will be no pushover either. Making the Ravens one dimensional makes them less dangerous, but not by much.
Perhaps more importantly for the 49ers defensively, they need to keep the Ravens from making big plays. No quick scores need to be given to the Ravens. Ideally, they should work for it, giving the defense of the 49ers more time to make plays. If the 49ers can get more of Tucker and Koch on the field, then the 49ers stand a good chance.
To sum it all up, the Ravens and 49ers have opposing offensive philosophies, but employ similar tactics on defense. The 49ers are a bit healthier on defense, but the Ravens hold a decisive advantage on special teams. Whichever team makes the least mistakes and forces the other team to play outside of their comfort zone, has the best shot of winning.
Prediction: Ravens 20-17