Published on January 31, 2013 | by David Venables

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Superbowl XLVII preview – Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers

On Sunday more than 100 million people across the globe will be tuning into their television sets with eager anticipation of the most watched sporting event of the year: the Super Bowl.

The Baltimore Ravens take on the San Francisco 49ers for the Lombardi Trophy at New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Despite being the 47th edition of the final game of the NFL season, this has several “firsts” leading into it.

It will be the first time two opposing head coaches have been brothers, with John Harbaugh leading out the Ravens, while his brother Jim takes charge of the 49ers.

Both franchises are also undefeated in the Super Bowl, with the Ravens winning in their only appearance in 2001 while San Francisco has won all five of their previous final game match-ups.

Therefore, not only is it the first time two undefeated teams in Super Bowl history have faced each other, the team that wins this game will be the only team left with a perfect Super Bowl record after multiple appearances.

So, with reputations on the line and players hungry to etch their names into American football folklore, let’s take a look at how the two sides stack up.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens had a pretty unremarkable regular season. After going 12-4 and coming within a dropped catch and missed field goal of a Super Bowl appearance in 2011, the Ravens struggled to take most of that momentum with them.

Defensively, they were hit with injuries to key players such as Terrell Suggs, who won Defensive Player of the Year in 2011 before tearing his Achilles, ruling him out until week seven, and veteran linebacker Ray Lewis.

Crucially, with Lewis in the team, the Ravens went 5-1. Without him, they slumped to 5-5, losing the chance at securing a home-field advantage in the playoffs and instead gaining the 4th seeding with a 10-6 record.

While injuries beset the defense, offensively, the Ravens were worryingly inconsistent. Fifth-year quarterback Joe Flacco threw for a career best 3,817 passing yards, 22 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions.

For every ounce the Ravens offense was great at home, away, they were stagnant, often dim-witted. The failings were so obvious that despite having a 9-4 record at the time, Harbaugh fired his offensive co-ordinator and one time mentor Cam Cameron, replacing him with Jim Caldwell.

It was a bold move, but one that paid dividends in the playoffs, with Flacco throwing for eight touchdowns and no interceptions.

For all their flaws though, the Ravens played with one thing that you couldn’t find in most teams: heart. They played for each other. John Harbaugh installed a “family” ethos into the Ravens camp since he took over as head coach in 2008, and it shone through this season more than ever.

Wide receiver Torrey Smith played against the New England Patriots in week three mere hours after his brother, Tevin, died tragically in a motorcycle accident. Though Harbaugh said he could leave the team and be with his family he decided to play, saying “it was the right thing to do, for me, my family and for Tevin.”

He went on to collect six receptions for 127 yards and two touchdowns, helping the Ravens to win by a single point. Long-time owner Art Modell also died just before the regular season started and the team dedicated their entire season to him.

These adversities made the team stronger and instilled with them a belief and confidence in each other that they could go all the way. They played with such confidence that, according to NFL correspondent for BBC Radio Lancashire Dan McDermott, during the tense overtime period away at the Denver Broncos in the divisional round playoff match: “In the offensive huddle Marshal Yanda revealed team were laughing at icicles in his beard.”

This ease was again demonstrated a week later in Foxborough. While Ravens fans were nervous, desperate to see their team avenge the agonising defeat against the Patriots a year earlier, “cornerback Jimmy Smith was out on the field playing a bit of air guitar.” Some may call it arrogance, some a display of over-confidence, but whatever it is, it’s working right now.

Their emotional leader, Ray Lewis, announced he would retire after this season. This is his last shot at another ring, his team knows that, and they are fighting to help him achieve his and their collective dream.

San Francisco 49ers

San Francisco 49ersThe 49ers had a far smoother route to the Super Bowl, but it didn’t stop them from making just as many bold decisions as the Ravens camp.

Starting quarterback Alex Smith, a 2005 first round draft pick who led them to the NFC championship game in 2011, was replaced by second year talent Colin Kaepernick after Smith suffered a concussion mid-season.

Despite being third in overall passer rating and with Kaepernick being untested, Jim Harbaugh decided to stick with the more versatile QB in Kaepernick, leaving Smith benched after he had recovered. Harbaugh’s bold move paid off, with Kaepernick leading the 49ers to an 11-4-1 record, the second best in the NFC behind the Atlanta Falcons.

Kaepernick demonstrated all the traits of the “new style” of quarterback, where legwork often had to match arm strength, ushered in with the 2012 rookies of Robert Griffin III (RG3), Russell Wilson, and veterans such as Michael Vick.

This “new style” was never more evident than when Kaepernick ran for 181 yards, a single game NFL rushing record by a QB, in the divisional round versus the Green Bay Packers. Kaepernick then again proved his mettle by steering the 49ers past the highly favoured Falcons after turning around a 17-0 deficit, the biggest comeback in NFC championship history.

It’s not just offensively that the 49ers got it right this year. Defensively they have been outstanding. They ranked second overall for fewest points allowed per game, and all four of their linebackers, Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks, made the 2012 All-Pro team.

Smith also set a franchise record with 19.5 sacks, while Pro-Bowl selection Justin Smith led the line with 66 tackles and three sacks. Special teams though is where the 49ers have struggled.

Veteran kicker David Akers converted only 69% of his attempted field goals, including missing a simple 38-yard kick against the Falcons weeks ago. Though beating out Billy Cundiff, the man who missed a similar game tying field goal in a championship game in 2011 for the Ravens, questions still remain over his reliability to kick crucial points for the 49ers.

Key match-ups

Either team will obviously have to be on top form to stand a chance of winning on Sunday. For the Ravens they have to do a better job at stopping a versatile QB.

They lost to both RG3’s Redskins and Vick’s Eagles in the regular season, struggling to contain the read option playbooks employed by both. Kaepernick and 49ers running back Frank Gore will look to exploit the weak run defense of the Ravens once more.

However, neither RG3 nor Vick made it out of those respective games healthy, and if Kaepernick does leave the safety of his pocket, he better be aware of the fury contained in the Ravens defense, or he could end up being carted out of the Superdome, potentially along with the 49ers’ Super Bowl dreams.

While keeping Kaepernick healthy, the 49ers need to be aware of the dangers possessed by Flacco. With new co-ordinator Caldwell, Flacco has extended his range of passing to encompass the deep balls to Smith, plus shorter route passes to tight end Dennis Pitta or receiver Anquan Boldin.

Not only do they have to be aware of that, but the no-huddle offense now incorporates running back Ray Rice to a degree where the 49ers will have to be wary of any gaps in the line.

So the stage is set, the “Har-Bowl”, as it has come to be known, is almost upon us. It is very striking that both teams can be so similar, not only by having the same blood on opposing side-lines, but also in their play.

Both teams benefitted from bold mid-season calls. Both teams employ a very physical defense that is dominant in the red zone. They each have quarterbacks that can get the job done in big game situations. Both teams have stars in every position that could potentially be difference makers.

These factors are all why this game is so hard to call. The form-book tells you the 49ers should win, the fairy-tale tells you the Ravens have to win. Knowing which team’s dreams will play out is the question that waits to be answered.  The answer will come very soon indeed.

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