Five Reasons the 49ers Will Win
1 Large and in Charge
San Francisco's O-line is indeed large—its starting five averages 6'5" and 317 pounds—but largely overlooked has been its health. The 49ers were one of just three teams to field the same five starters each game in 2012, which had a lot to do with the unit's earning the highest run blocking grade Pro Football Focus has recorded in its five years. That cohesiveness and absence of a weak link make San Francisco's run game less predictable. In the NFC Championship Game, for instance, Frank Gore ran left seven times, up the middle six times and right eight times.
2 This: Justin
Defensive end Justin Smith (above) suffered a torn triceps late in the third quarter of the Niners' Week 15 win in New England. Over the regular season's remaining nine quarters, San Francisco—which had been No. 1 in the NFL in scoring defense at 14.2 ppg—allowed 79 points. The 33-year-old four-time Pro Bowler is arguably the Niners' most important defender (sorry, Aldon Smith), and even though he hasn't fully healed, his return for the playoffs has particularly bolstered San Francisco's run D. That could spell trouble for the Ravens' Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce.
3 End Game
Vernon Davis, the 49ers' talented tight end, has been a forgotten man for most of the (brief) Kaepernick era, averaging just one catch a game from Week 12 through the division-round win over Green Bay. In the NFC Championship Game, however, Kaepernick hit Davis five times for 106 yards and a TD, and now the big man is poised for a second consecutive big game, facing a trio of Ravens defenders—inside linebackers Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe and strong safety Bernard Pollard—who aren't fast enough to stay with him.
4 Dome Field Advantage
Forty-seven years of predetermined locations and we're still awaiting the first Super Bowl featuring a team playing on its own turf—but the 49ers have more reason to feel at home in the Superdome than the Ravens. They beat the Saints under that roof in November, and they've played four games this season in domes—with their contained noise and artificial light—including the NFC title game in Atlanta. The Ravens haven't played in New Orleans since 2006 and had just one indoor game in 2012, a 43--13 loss in Houston that marked their worst defeat.
5 Smith on Line Two
Alex Smith is as valuable a reserve as you'll find in this game. He has recent exposure to the Ravens' D, having played in HarBowl I in 2011, which could prove valuable in instructing Kaepernick on Baltimore's pass rush. (Smith was taken down nine times in that game.) If Kaepernick were to become the first Super Bowl QB since Stan Humphries in 1995 to be sidelined by injury during the game, the 49ers would tag in a guy who completed 70.2% of his passes in 2012 and who has more wins since '11 (19) than Tyrod Taylor, Joe Flacco's backup, has career completions (18).
Five Reasons the Ravens Will Win
1 Fortune Favors Boldin
The 49ers allowed 396 passing yards in a win over Atlanta and now face deep threats Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones. Meanwhile, Anquan Boldin (above) will often be left in single coverage, and that's a battle he'll likely win, as he did in the AFC Championship Game (five catches, two TDs). At 32, Boldin still sucks up most everything thrown his way by posting up his 6' 1", 220-pound frame against smaller defenders. On Sunday he'll be taller than both of the Niners' CBs likely to cover him, Chris Culliver and Carlos Rogers, and he'll outweigh them by 21 and 28 pounds.
2 Aldon, All Done?
San Francisco's sensational pass rusher, Aldon Smith, had 19½ sacks through 13 games—and none in the Niners' subsequent five. Conventional wisdom is that Smith was hurt by the attention offenses devoted to him after the injury to Justin Smith, but Aldon was shut out even after Justin returned in Week 16. He showed signs of life against Atlanta (five pressures, two hits) but has his work cut out for him against the Ravens. Their recently jelled line has given up just five sacks of Joe Flacco (who excels against the blitz) over its past five games.
3 Can't Slow Their Roll
Teams that have been seeded fourth or lower have reached five of the past seven Super Bowls after having played an extra wild-card game to get there, and in the big dance each of them has faced opponents that have been seeded No. 1 or No. 2. The lower seeds have won four of those games; only the 2008 Cardinals lost—barely—to the Steelers. In other words there's plenty to be said for momentum at this time of year. San Francisco was the NFC's second seed; Baltimore was the AFC's fourth seed.
4 Many Healthy Returns
One reason for the Ravens' recent surge: They've avoided the injury bug that afflicted their D early in 2012. Everyone knows that a torn triceps kept Ray Lewis out of 10 games. But that's just the top of the list. DL Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee, LBs Terrell Suggs and Dannell Ellerbe, and DBs Jimmy Smith, Lardarius Webb and Bernard Pollard all missed between two and 10 games. Just two defenders—FS Ed Reed and CB Cary Williams—made 16 starts. All but Webb will play Sunday, and a D that ranked outside the top 10 for the first time since '02 should be its old self.
5 All in the Family
San Francisco's roster remains virtually identical to the one that the Ravens handled rather easily, 16--6, on Thanksgiving night of 2011, the only previous time the Harbaugh brothers have faced off as coaches. In that game the Ravens put up 253 yards of offense to the 49ers' 170, which included just 90 yards in the air. The only major changes: fullback Bruce Miller, receiver Randy Moss and—oh, yes—that Kaepernick kid. Still, John Harbaugh knows how to beat San Fran. He certainly knows how to beat the opposing head coach.
Getting To Know You
Six less heralded players who could be difference-makers on Sunday
Injuries forced Graham, a former Pro Bowl special-teamer, into Baltimore's starting CB job in November. He ranks second to Ray Lewis with 26 playoff tackles and has four INTs this season—two against Peyton Manning.
Lee's the rare punter who is a serious weapon. He owns two of the three best seasonal net averages in history (he set the record of 44.0 in 2011), and in '12 he was one of two punters to drop more than 50% of his kicks inside the 20.
At 36, the Harvard grad is no longer a perennial Pro Bowler, but he still excels as a run blocker: In the AFC title game 10 of the Ravens' 30 rushes went up the middle, in the vicinity of space-eating Vince Wilfork, who made just one tackle.
Undrafted in '09 and a reserve until this season, he was Pro Football Focus's third-rated guard in the NFL, and the Niners' second-ranked lineman behind LT Joe Staley.
Two off-season knee surgeries slowed this 2011 fifth-rounder early on, and his sacks dropped from six last year to 1½ in '12. But he's returned to form in the playoffs, tipping two key Tom Brady passes in the AFC title game.
This rookie's 4.45 speed was contained to the sideline until Week 14. Since then he's played 107 snaps in six games as a return man (he had a 62-yard KR against the Pats) and change-of-pace back (a 15-yard TD run against the Falcons).
DANIEL GLUSKOTER (JUSTIN SMITH)
JOHN BIEVER (BOLDIN)
JEFF GROSS (GRAHAM)
JEFF LEWIS/ICON SMI (LEE)
HOWARD SMITH/US PRESSWIRE (BIRK)
JEFF HANISCH/US PRESSWIRE (BOONE)
MITCH STRINGER/USA TODAY SPORTS (MCPHEE)
KYLE TERADA/USA TODAY SPORTS (JAMES)