Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Nate Davis, USA TODAY Sports
The San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens will square off against each other in Super Bowl XLVII. (The game will be televised on CBS/WLTX) Here are the keys to winning the game for each team.
49ers Keys to the Victory
Spread the field: The 49ers aren't particularly deep at wideout after losing Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams to injured reserve in the regular season. Still, it might be worth targeting a Baltimore defense that suffered a key loss itself when CB Lardarius Webb went down with an ACL tear in October. Niners WRs Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss should have a collective edge against CBs Cary Williams and Corey Graham. But a real advantage might be gained by deploying RB LaMichael James and/or uber-athletic TEs Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker against a team that's struggled in nickel packages and doesn't have good pass-defending linebackers. And getting them on their heels could open up delayed runs for QB Colin Kaepernick and RB Frank Gore.
Ride Gore: Kaepernick's star turn has garnered much of his team's attention in the playoffs and rightfully so. But sure and steady often does the trick, and Gore, who rarely loses yardage or fumbles, is both while providing a means to keep Baltimore's resurgent offense at bay. He's averaging nearly 5 yards per carry in postseason and consistently made the Green Bay Packers and, especially the Atlanta Falcons, pay when they focused on keeping Kaepernick from getting loose outside on read-option plays. That stratagem usually means an inside handoff to Gore from the team's pistol formation, and he consistently gashed teams into the second and third level. Led by all-pro G Mike Iupati, San Francisco's offensive line is at its best blowing defenders off the ball and should make hay against a wavering Ravens run defense.
Attack the edges: Amazingly, the 49ers have gotten one sack from an edge rusher in their past five games, and all 19½ of Aldon Smith's quarterback takedowns came prior to Week 15. If that doesn't change, Ravens QB Joe Flacco will surely dissect San Francisco. At the very least, the Niners need to get Flacco on the move rather than let him consistently set up in the pocket and scan the field. Niners DL Justin Smith is essentially playing with one arm, and Aldon Smith frequently capitalized on stunt rushes set up by his namesake. Yet as well as Baltimore's O-line has played lately, Aldon Smith and OLB Ahmad Brooks should be able to shake loose against Ts Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher, who are hardly airtight pass blockers, especially when isolated. The Ravens have lost three of their past four games when Flacco is sacked at least three times.
Capitalize in the red zone: Obviously, scoring touchdowns is preferable to settling for field goals. But the Ravens are allowing opponents TDs in just 40% of their postseason trips inside the 20-yard line. The New England Patriots, the highest-scoring team in the league in the regular season, went 1-for-4 in the AFC Championship Game, and Tom Brady was picked off on two other forays inside the Baltimore 25-yard line. The 49ers have come away with TDs on 78% of their playoff red-zone drives. That's particularly important given struggling K David Akers is 7-for-12 (58.3%) on field-goal attempts in his last five games. Kaepernick's decision-making may come into extreme focus in these situations given he won't have as much room to roam, and lurking veterans like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed will be ready to pounce the first time he makes a faulty read.
Beat the bully: Recent Super Bowls have been dominated by teams reliant on aerial theatrics. But Super Bowl XLVII should be a throwback to a time when the tougher teams ruled. The Ravens and 49ers both have obvious flaws, but they've also physically beaten the opposition in their respective quests for glory. With ILBs Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman and Ss Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, no team is scarier over the middle than San Francisco, including the formidable Ravens. But both squads are equally adept at issuing momentum-swinging hits, and whoever lays the most wood Sunday will likely end up etching a Lombardi legacy.
Ravens Keys to Victory:
Stop the run: The Baltimore defense is as healthy as it's been all season, the year-ending injuries to CB Lardarius Webb and ILB Jameel McClain aside. But the Ravens' struggles against the run have only intensified in the playoffs (128.3 yards per game) despite playing three teams with pocket-bound passers. That will change Sunday when they face long-striding QB Colin Kaepernick, bullish back Frank Gore and the 49ers' pistol offense. San Francisco is averaging 236 yards on the ground in postseason, including 323 against the Green Bay Packers, who favor a 3-4 defense like Baltimore. Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Co. will have to ward off age and injuries to bottle up a genie that's close to granting the Niners a sixth ring.
Attack the corners: As good as San Francisco's defense has been in recent years, it can falter in pass coverage. A year ago, the Niners survived the New Orleans Saints despite allowing three 100-yard receivers in a divisional round shootout. A week later, Victor Cruz worked over CB Carlos Rogers for 10 catches and 142 yards in rainy, windy conditions in the New York Giants' NFC Championship Game victory. The 49ers continue to toe a dangerous line on the passing periphery. They gave up some big plays to Green Bay in this year's playoff opener and even more to the Atlanta Falcons the following week as Julio Jones and Roddy White frequently ran free. Baltimore WR Torrey Smith can stretch any secondary while wingman Anquan Boldin overpowers most corners. If Jacoby Jones can also threaten the deep zones, the Ravens should be in business. And forcing the 49ers into nickel packages dilutes their outstanding front seven while opening cracks for Ray Rice and underrated TE Dennis Pitta.
Protect the quarterback: Joe Flacco can't run like Kaepernick, but by nearly every other metric, the rocket-armed Raven has been the postseason's top passer. His 114.7 rating is tops in the playoffs - 27 points higher than his regular-season clip - and he has yet to throw an interception while firing off eight TDs. Yet the job Baltimore's reconfigured offensive line has done isn't getting enough attention. LT Bryant McKinnie (all 354 pounds of him) didn't start once in the regular season but returned to the lineup in January. Even though his presence forced Michael Oher and Kelechi Osemele to switch positions, the unit has thrived, surrendering just 1.3 sacks of Flacco per game - about one fewer than he endured in the regular season. If Flacco has time to exploit an already suspect San Fran pass defense, look out.
Maintain discipline: Despite their veteran pedigree, the Ravens were the most-penalized team in the NFL in 2012 and committed a league-high 19 personal fouls. Lewis and hard-hitting SS Bernard Pollard were whistled for excessive hits in the AFC Championship Game. Sometimes playing on the edge can send a lesser opponent over it, and Pollard's (legal) blow on New England Patriots RB Stevan Ridley turned the tide two weeks ago. But costly miscues can also prove fatal in games with razor-thin margins and evenly matched foes. Gap discipline will be just as vital in Baltimore's quest to prevent Kaepernick and Gore from breaking off long gainers.
Cover the kicks: If not for two return touchdowns by Trindon Holliday, the Ravens might have blown the Denver Broncos off their Mile High mountain in the divisional playoffs rather than outlasting them in double overtime. Baltimore also struggled to contain New England's Wes Welker on punts in the AFC Championship Game. But the Ravens are also perfectly capable of suffocating kick coverage and didn't allow a single return to the Indianapolis Colts in the wild-card round. Rookie K Justin Tucker should get plenty of distance on his kickoffs in the Superdome, but Sam Koch will need to improve his hang time and directional punting. After all, 49ers return man Ted Ginn Jr. can hit a home run at any time.