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Inside the Matchup
Super Bowl

By: Bill Andereson | Sal Marcoccio | Nick Caron | Kyle Smith

 Predictions - YTD
Rk Staffer W L %
1 Caron 47 19 71.2
2 Anderson 45 21 68.2
3 Smith 45 22 67.2
4 Marcoccio 38 26 59.4

Ravens @ 49ers - (Marcoccio)

Passing Game Thoughts: While looking for a contract extension before the season started, Joe Flacco declared himself a top 5 quarterback in anticipation of being paid like one. He just may get his wish after leading the Ravens to their second Super Bowl appearance and vanquishing Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady along the way. Flacco has thrown for eight touchdowns without an interception during the Ravens' playoff run, beating the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds on the road along the way. Flacco makes his living on the deep ball, but his short-area accuracy has never been better. He has some nice weapons at his disposal, including Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta and Ray Rice out of the backfield. Boldin isn’t the same player he was during his heyday, but he’s still a big, dependable target that can use his size and strength to shield off defenders—and he's coming off his second monster game of the 2012 playoffs. Bolden caught two touchdowns in Foxboro last week in the fourth quarter, using his strength to outmuscle the New England defensive backs and seal the victory for his team. Smith is one of the best deep threats in the league and should cause fits for a San Francisco secondary that allowed Julio Jones to score from 46 and 20 yards out last week and James Jones to average over 20 yards per reception the week before, including a 20-yard touchdown reception. Pitta isn’t overly athletic, and despite having a productive season and playoff run, the young tight end could disappear this week while matched up with San Francisco's fast and athletic linebackers, Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis. The biggest weapon for this team is Rice, even when we’re talking about the passing game. The Ravens like to use Rice in the screen game, and the shifty back is capable of gaining yards on his own, as demonstrated by his 47-yard reception against Indianapolis in the wild-card round.

The 49ers have been one of the best defenses in the league over the past two seasons, but their secondary has been the Achilles heel of an otherwise talented unit. When Justin Smith was healthy, his and second-year linebacker Aldon Smith’s ability to apply consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks masked the weakness of the secondary, specifically cornerback Tarell Brown’s struggles with speed on the outside. Since Smith’s elbow injury, however, he’s struggled to make an impact, and opposing team’s have been able to move the ball through the air. During the regular season, the 49ers were ranked fourth against the pass, allowing 200.2 yards passing per game and 19 touchdowns on the season. But in their two playoff games, the team has allowed 644 passing yards and five touchdowns.

Running Game Thoughts: After running rampant over the Broncos, Ray Rice struggled against a tough New England run defense in the AFC Championship game, averaging only 2.5 yards per carry. He did manage to plunge through the line to score a two-yard touchdown though. Rice has big-play ability, but it has been rookie Bernard Pierce who has looked like the more dynamic back in two of the Ravens' three playoff games. Pierce is bigger and faster than Rice, but he lacks the vision, lateral ability and balance of the veteran back. Pierce was fresh enough and powerful enough to average 5.8 yards per carry in New England and was a key part of the Ravens fourth-quarter surge. Both backs should be utilized against the Niners' quick and hard-hitting defense.

We all know the legend that is Patrick Willis, but fellow inside linebacker Navarro Bowman is starting to make a name for himself as well. No team in the league fields two inside linebackers as fast, powerful and athletic as the San Francisco duo. The Falcons managed to gain only 3.5 yards per carry in the NFC Championship game, but then again, Michael Turner has been pedestrian all season and Jacquizz Rodgers is smaller and slower than both the backs the Ravens will use in the Super Bowl. On the season the 49ers ranked fourth against the run, allowing only 94.2 yards per game and just seven rushing touchdowns on the season. That success has carried over to the playoffs, but Green Bay and Atlanta lack the O-line and talent at running back that Baltimore possesses. The Ravens will surely want to run the ball. Whether they can against this tough defense will go a long way in determining which Harbaugh brother hoists the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday night.

Joe Flacco: 285 yds passing 2 TDs, 1 INT
Anquan Boldin: 65 yds receiving, 1 TD
Torrey Smith: 95 yds receiving, 1 TD
Jacoby Jones: 40 yds receiving
Dennis Pitta: 20 yds receiving
Ray Rice: 65 yds rushing, 1 TD / 35 yds receiving
Bernard Pierce: 40 yards rushing

Passing Game Thoughts: Many people were shocked when Jim Harbaugh replaced the steady and dependable Alex Smith with second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Smith was knocked out of San Francisco’s Week 10 game against St. Louis with a concussion, and then Kaepernick excelled in Week 11’s game against the Bears before a Monday Night audience. Smith was 6-2 at the time and had taken the Niners to the NFC Championship in 2011. Not only that, but he was a team leader that showed great perseverance while rising from the ashes of being a first-round bust. Of course no San Francisco fans are complaining now, as the dynamic Kaepernick has brought the team to the brink of its sixth Super Bowl victory. Along the way, the former Nevada Wolf Pack field general set the NFL playoff record for rushing yards by a quarterback, with 181 against the Packers in the divisional round. In addition to his running abilities, Kaepernick also possesses a rocket arm and precision accuracy, creating a nightmare for opposing defenses. He has started only seven games, but he’s already shown an ability to read defenses at the line of scrimmage that many veterans don’t even possess. Michael Crabtree has stepped up his game with Kaepernick under center and is producing like the top 10 pick he was drafted to be. He has 15 receptions for 176 yards and two touchdowns during the playoffs and looks quicker and stronger than he ever has in his early career. Vernon Davis is arguably the most athletic tight end in the league, but until last week’s NFC Championship game, he lacked any chemistry with Kaepernick and was an afterthought in this offense. Against Atlanta, however, Davis cleared 100 yards and scored on a 4-yard pass from Kaepernick. Future Hall of Famer Randy Moss gets another crack at the elusive Super Bowl ring that he failed to earn when the Giants beat the then-undefeated Patriots. Moss is no longer the imposing freak athlete he was in his younger days, but he is still a capable contributor and could be a big factor against Baltimore.

The once mighty Ravens defense wasn’t what it used to be during the regular season, but they made Tom Brady look like a journeyman in the AFC Championship game and forced Peyton Manning into three critical turnovers in the divisional round. The Ravens have faced three of 2012’s top-rated quarterbacks during this postseason run, reinvigorating the swagger and confidence their defense once possessed. During the regular season, Baltimore was mid-pack in passing yards allowed, giving up 228.1 yards per game, yet they were second to only Atlanta in passing touchdowns allowed with 15 on the season. Ed Reed may have lost a step but is still one of the biggest playmakers on the defensive side in football and will be looking to capitalize on any mistakes the inexperienced Kaepernick makes on the world’s biggest stage.

Running Game Thoughts: I was one that believed Frank Gore was washed up two offseasons ago, but he’s looked as quick and strong as ever during the last two seasons and has not slowed down during this playoff run. Gore’s vision is outstanding and his compact running style in which very little movement is wasted is still an impressive sight. It surely doesn’t hurt that San Francisco features the top run-blocking unit in the league. Backup Kendall Hunter was lost for the season, but his role has been filled adequately by rookie LaMichael James, whose speed and quickness provides a perfect complement to the hard-charging Gore. James scored San Francisco’s first touchdown against Atlanta on an impressive 15-yard run. The 49ers were the fourth best rushing offense in the league this season and likely would have been even better if Kaepernick had started the season’s first nine games in place of Alex Smith. The running game is obviously a big part of what the Niners do on offense. That shouldn’t change under the bright lights of the Super Dome.

The Ravens reputation as a hard-hitting, stingy run defense took a hit this season, as the team allowed 122.8 yards per game on the ground and 15 rushing touchdowns. Ray Lewis’ return from an arm injury, along with the announcement of his impending retirement, has provided an emotional lift for the team, but on the field he’s a shell of his former self. Through the playoffs the Ravens allowed Indianapolis to run for 152 yards then gave up 125 to Denver (which included double overtime) and held New England to only 108, so the unit has been on an upswing. The Ravens will certainly be tested in the biggest game of the year when facing the savvy veteran Gore and the dynamic Kaepernick.

Colin Kaepernick: 255 pass yds 2 TDs, 1 INT / 55 rush yds
Michael Crabtree: 105 rec yds, 1 TD
Randy Moss: 50 rec yds, 1 TD
A.J. Jenkins: 25 rec yds
Vernon Davis: 45 rec yds
Frank Gore: 115 rush yds, 1 TD / 15 rec yds
LaMichael James: 30 rush yds

Prediction: 49ers 27, Ravens 24 ^ Top

Ravens vs. 49ers - (Anderson)

Passing Game Thoughts: The change in offensive coordinators has done wonders for Joe Flacco and this Ravens passing attack, as Flacco is throwing the ball both more aggressively downfield and with more precision than ever before. Thus far in these playoffs Flacco has thrown eight touchdowns (best in the playoffs) with no interceptions and also leads all playoff quarterbacks with a 114.7 rating. Needless to say, the Ravens passing game is on fire and peeking at just the right time. With Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin, the Ravens have two legit receiving threats who can stretch the field (Smith) and play possession-type football (Boldin). Add running back Ray Rice’s catching ability to the mix, and the 49ers will have to contend with short, intermediate, and deep passes all game long.

Now the bad news for the Ravens passing attack: on the season, the 49ers defense finished fourth in passing yards, second in yards per attempt, and seventh in touchdown passes, all while never giving up a passing play of more than 53 yards (best in the NFL). This last statistic may be the most telling, as the Ravens have lately been relying on the big pass play (with 11 plays of 40 or more yards). If the Ravens are forced to use only intermediate and dump-off passes, it may be a long day for them, and one of their biggest weapons in Smith might be taken out of the game completely. On the other hand, the 49ers did show some vulnerability on pass defense last week against the Falcons, as they allowed nearly 400 yards passing and three touchdowns through the air while recording just one pick and one sack. In other words, they are certainly not invincible through the air, as the Ravens will surely learn when they watch the game tape.

Talent-wise I give the advantage to the 49ers pass defense in this matchup, as they have the personnel to consistently pressure Flacco as well as cover the Baltimore receivers. Momentum-wise, the Ravens have the advantage here, as their passing game is firing on all cylinders while the 49ers secondary is in a bit of a slump. Overall, however, talent trumps momentum. The 49ers have had a much more consistent and productive year than Flacco and the Ravens passing game, so I'm going with the 49ers pass defense in this particular phase of the game.

Running Game Thoughts: The Ravens' mid-season change in offensive coordinators did not only positively affect the passing attack but the running game as well. The aggressiveness of the passing attack has opened things up near the line of scrimmage. With opposing safeties paying more attention to the threat of the deep ball, they are a step or two deeper than normal, allowing more room for the Ravens running backs to create plays. In addition, the change in coordinators has also meant more parity in the Ravens backfield, with dynamic rookie Bernard Pierce handling a bigger workload. This change has not only thrown opposing defenses off a bit, because of the different style of rushing that Pierce brings, but has kept Rice fresher throughout the game, allowing the Ravens to pound the rock all game long if they so choose. Since the change in coordinators, Pierce has upped his average rushes per game from just over five to more than 11. In this stretch, he has averaged nearly six yards per carry, often breaking runs outside of the box for large gains, in contrast to Rice, who normally stays inside the tackles with more power.

In their two playoff games, the 49ers have given up only 185 rushing yards combined. And on the season they were the league’s fourth-rated rush defense, having allowed just 3.7 yards per carry and seven touchdowns. While they are no doubt an elite run defense, their two previous playoff games may not be a good indicator of how hot or cold they are, since the two teams they faced (Packers and Falcons) are both pass-heavy teams with below-average talent at the running back position. I would even venture to say that Pierce is better than any running back on either the Packers' or the Falcons' current roster. And Rice is obviously one of the best talents in the NFL. Still, with one of the best linebacker corps in the league and lineman Justin Smith given more time to heal up, the Ravens will have their struggles finding consistent holes in one of the league’s very best run-stopping units.

Overall I think the 49ers have the edge, but by a very slight margin. If Flacco can connect on a couple of deep balls early and Rice and Pierce can mix up the inside/outside runs with some success, it could be a successful catalyst for the Ravens offense. On the other hand, if the 49ers safeties are allowed to creep up into the box for much of the game, it could be a long day for the Ravens running attack.

Joe Flacco: 255 pass yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
Ray Rice: 55 rush yds, 1 TD, 20 rec yds
Bernard Pierce: 30 rush yds, 10 rec yds
Torrey Smith: 45 rec yds
Anquan Boldin: 55 rec yds
Dennis Pitta: 50 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: While the 49ers remain a run-first, defensive-minded team, their pass game is not to be taken lightly, as it can strike quickly, explosively, and efficiently. In both the regular season and the playoffs, Colin Kaepernick ranks first in average yards per pass attempt, and with his elite arm strength, the Baltimore defense will need to back away from the line of scrimmage and be wary of the deep ball this week. This particular matchup is very interesting to me because the 49ers passing game and the Ravens pass defense are very much alike; neither is anywhere near elite but both are very efficient and opportunistic. The Ravens pass defense was barely average during the season in pass yards allowed, yards per attempt, and sacks. Despite this, however, they ranked second best in passing touchdowns allowed. Thus far in the playoffs they have intercepted more passes (5) than allowed passing touchdowns (4) despite playing against three excellent quarterbacks (Luck, Manning, Brady). This bend-but-don’t-break defense is an intriguing contrast to the passing game of the 49ers, who do not get a ton of passing yards (23rd in the NFL) but complete a high percentage (66.3) of their attempts and do not turn the ball over a lot (tied for least number of INTs). The 49ers have stayed true to these numbers in the playoffs, as they have averaged less than 250 yards passing but have a nice 3:1 TD-to-INT ratio through two games.

If you look at the majority of Kaepernick's starts, it is clear that wide receiver Michael Crabtree has been far and away his favorite target, while most of his other receivers have done very little. If this were still the case going into this game, it might make the job easier for the Ravens. Against the Falcons, however, tight end Vernon Davis finally broke out with Kaepernick at quarterback (5 rec, 106 yds, 1 TD) and thus will demand some extra attention from the Ravens, in turn making Crabtree even more dangerous. This specific matchup will come down to two main things: the amount of pressure the Ravens can put on Kaepernick, and the success (or lack of) that the 49ers have in throwing the deep ball early. If the Ravens can force the 49ers into throwing short dump-off passes early (either by pressure or coverage), it will play into Baltimore’s hands, as they will be able to keep everything in front of them and limit the amount of big plays, both in the pass and the run game. If the 49ers complete a couple of long passes early or Kaepernick breaks contain and runs for a few long runs, it will be chaos for the Ravens, as they will struggle to cover all parts of the field. In this case, I would actually expect the Ravens smart, veteran-led defense to have a little advantage over the less-seasoned Kaepernick and limit his big-play ability through much of the game. While I certainly do not expect the Ravens to dominate on pass defense, I think they have a slight advantage in this particular phase of the game.

Running Game Thoughts: The addition of Kaepernick has obviously made an impact on the 49ers passing game, but he may actually be more of a headache for opposing defenses in the rushing game. Kaepernick ran for seven touchdowns and more than 600 yards through the season, despite not playing much early on. We saw in the playoff game against Green Bay how dangerous Kaepernick can be with his feet (16 car, 181 yds, 2 TDs) and now Baltimore will be faced with the task of trying to find ways to slow him down. The matchup between Kaepernick and the Ravens defense will be interesting because the Niners quarterback gets a lot of his yards on big runs, of which the Ravens do not give up many. The longest they have given up this season was a 31-yarder, which was the second lowest in the NFL. On 81 attempts this year Kaepernick has five runs of more than 31 yards, including three 50-plus yard runs. Limiting Kaepernick on the ground will obviously be a priority for the Ravens, and while it will be a very difficult task, Baltimore has the personnel and the scheme to at least limit the long runs. An interesting side note here: in the two other games the Ravens played against a serious running threat at quarterback (Vick in Week 2 and RG3 in Week 14), they lost both games.

With all this the hype surrounding Kaepernick, we almost forget that the 49ers main running threat, Frank Gore, is still producing at a high level (10th in rushing this year) and may be at his peak right now, having gained 209 yards on the ground and scored three times in the first two playoff games. With the air attack more aggressive downfield since the quarterback change took place, Gore has found more running room near the line of scrimmage and continues to wear down opposing defenses, registering 20 or more carries in four of his last five games. While the Ravens run defense has been pretty stingy on a per-carry basis (4.0, 8th best), teams that have continued to pound the rock against them have been pretty successful, both in total yardage and in victories. If the 49ers can get the Ravens to respect the deep ball and mix in a few Kaepernick or LaMichael James outside runs, with Gore pounding it up the middle (which I expect they will do), it will be tough for Ray Lewis and company to keep up with the multi-dimensional attack of the San Francisco run game. While the Ravens are a tough team to rush against, with great run-stoppers at every level (Ngata, Lewis, Pollard), they have not really faced a rushing attack like this. The combination of speed, power, and quickness will probably be enough to wear out the Baltimore run defense by the time the fourth quarter comes along.

Colin Kaepernick: 245 pass yds, 1 TD, 40 rush yds, 1 TD
Frank Gore: 70 rush yds, 1 TD, 10 rec yds
Michael Crabtree: 70 rec yds
Vernon Davis: 55 rec yds, 1 TD
Randy Moss: 35 rec yds

Prediction: San Francisco 27, Baltimore 23 ^ Top