This Week in: The NFL – Superbowl XLVII

This Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens will meet in the 47th Super Bowl, this year to be contested in the Superdome of New Orleans, Louisiana.  Here is a look at the two teams who will be contesting it, along with my prediction for who will win the Lombardi Trophy.

49ers legend Joe Montana - winner in all four of the Super Bowls he contested
49ers legend Joe Montana – winner in all four of the Super Bowls he contested

History

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers were the first professional sports team to be based in San Francisco, with the franchise coming into existence in 1946, 11 years prior to baseball’s New York Giants moving to the West Coast.  Their most successful era came in the 1980s, when they had legendary quarterback Joe Montana under center, as they won Super Bowls in 1981, 1984, 1988 and 1989.  After Montana had been traded to the Kansas City Chiefs in 1993, his replacement, Steve Young, led the team to a 5th title in 1994 but since then, the franchise had not returned to the Super Bowl until this year.  San Francisco’s nickname of the 49ers is a reference to the California Gold Rush of 1849, which helped the city grow both economically and in population.

Baltimore Ravens: The city of Baltimore lost their first NFL franchise in 1983, as the Colts moved to Indianapolis after 30 years in Maryland, during which time they achieved one Super Bowl victory – in 1970 – with a team that featured one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, Johnny Unitas.  Following the bolting of the Colts, the city went without football until 1996, when Art Modell moved his Cleveland Browns franchise there, though upon their creation, the Ravens – named for the famous poem by one-time resident of Baltimore, Edgar Allen Poe – were treated as an expansion team rather than a relocated one (and Cleveland got a new iteration of the Browns just three years later, so no fan base was left without a team).  In 2000, the Ravens made their only Super Bowl appearance against the New York Giants, with linebacker Ray Lewis – who has been with Baltimore since 1996 and will play his final game before retirement this Sunday – with the Most Valuable Player award in a 34-7 win.  Joe Flacco was drafted to be the new quarterback in 2008 and he was the first rookie to win a road playoff game and his total of six career victories in such contests is an NFL record.

Road to the Super Bowl

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers earned the NFC West title – and a first round bye in the playoffs – with an 11-4-1 record in the regular season, with the turning point of their year being the 24-24 tie against the St. Louis Rams in Week 10.  During that contest, they lost first choice QB Alex Smith to a concussion and his replacement, Colin Kaepernick, has not relinquished the starting job since he took over against the Bears the following week, leading the 49ers to a 32-7 victory over Chicago and five wins in their final seven games.  It was in their playoff matchup with the Packers that the value of Kaepernick over Smith became truly apparent, as he threw two touchdowns and ran for 181 yards and two scores – the best ever rushing performance by a quarterback in the postseason.  Two weeks ago in Atlanta against the top seeded Falcons, Kaepernick led San Francisco back from a 17-0 deficit to claim a 28-24 victory and a trip to New Orleans, where the 49ers have the opportunity to tie the Pittsburgh Steelers for most ever Super Bowls, with what would be their sixth title.

Flacco has upped his game once again this postseason
Flacco has upped his game once again this postseason

Baltimore Ravens: Although several of their performances had not been impressive – notably the 9-6 and 16-13 victories over the Chiefs and Chargers respectively – Baltimore had a 9-2 record heading into Week 13 of the regular season and were in contention for a first round bye.  However, defeats in four of their final five games saw them slip to the number 4 seed and that dismal run of form made it seem unlikely they would be serious contenders in January.  Nevertheless, after a slow start against the Indianapolis Colts, the Ravens took care of business in that matchup and then beat the top two teams in the AFC on the road, winning in Denver and New England.  The 28-13 defeat of the Patriots in the AFC Championship game was revenge for Baltimore, who had lost to the same opponents, at the same stage and in the same stadium last year.  During the postseason, Flacco has thrown for 8 touchdowns and 0 interceptions, while he also racked up a road victory for the fifth consecutive season, at least one in each of the years he has played in the NFL.

The Head Coaches

I am somewhat surprised that none of the major sports networks or websites have picked up on this story, but the head coaches of the two teams who will meet in the Super Bowl are actually brothers.  Unlike the Mannings, who timed their appearances in the NFL’s showpiece game for different years, the Harbaughs will now face off against each other for the first time since their infamous 1975 Christmas Day ABC’s Monday Night Football board game marathon that ended in a 98-91 victory for younger brother Jim Thanksgiving 2011, when John’s Ravens defeated Jim’s 49ers, 16-6.

Before New Orleans, the Harbaughs pitted wits on the living room floor
Before New Orleans, the Harbaughs pitted wits on the living room floor

San Francisco 49ers – Jim Harbaugh: During his playing career, Jim – younger than John by 15 months – was a quarterback who threw for more than 26,000 yards over 13 years, lining up during that time for the Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts, San Diego Chargers and the 49ers opponents on Sunday, the Ravens.  After spending seven seasons coaching in the college game with University of San Diego and Stanford, Harbaugh got his first NFL job in 2011 with San Francisco.  In his first year there, despite having a shortened pre-season due to the lockout, he improved the 49ers record by seven wins from 2010, as they finished 13-3 and ended up just missing out on a Super Bowl appearance after an overtime loss to the Giants in the NFC Championship Game.

Baltimore Ravens – John Harbaugh: John never played in the NFL and up until his appointment by the Baltimore Ravens in 2008, he had never held the position of head coach at any level.  The older Harbaugh had various assistant roles at different colleges up until 1998, when he was hired as special teams coordinator by the Philadelphia Eagles, then moving to defensive backs coach for a season in 2007.  During his five seasons as head coach of the Ravens – his arrival coincided with Joe Flacco’s – Harbaugh has led his team to the playoffs every year, posting a 54-26 record in the regular season and 8-4 mark in the postseason.

The Teams

San Francisco 49ers: With Colin Kaerpenick at quarterback providing a legitimate running threat as well as the ability to throw deep, the San Francisco 49ers offense has at times looked unstoppable, most notably against the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers.  Against the Falcons in the NFC Championship game, the focus that Kaerpernick drew from Atlanta’s defense provided more space for running backs Frank Gore and LaMichael James, who combined for three rushing touchdowns.  At wide receiver, Michael Crabtree has been San Francisco’s main target during the playoffs, while Randy Moss and tight-end Vernon Davis also provide potent outlets for Kaerpernick.  On defense, the 49ers ranked second in the league for points allowed and fourth for both passing and rushing yards given up to their opponents, while their defensive line of Justin and Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis will put more pressure on Joe Flacco than he has experienced so far this postseason.

Baltimore Ravens: As mentioned above, Joe Flacco has played superbly during these playoffs – a huge improvement on his somewhat lackluster performance in the regular season – and the 70 yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones to tie the game with Denver in the dying seconds was sensational, as was his showing in the second half against the Patriots in the AFC Championship game.  If Flacco can perform to that standard once again – in the face of the 49ers strong pass rush – then Jones, Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith are all strong targets for him to throw to, as well as Ray Rice, one of the premier running backs in the NFL who can also provide an outlet for short passes to his quarterback.  On defense, the majority of the storylines will be grabbed by the retiring (literally, not in personality) Ray Lewis, who has returned from torn triceps remarkably quickly – once again appearing to be as strong as deer antlers an ox and definitely has not been putting the PED into unexpectedly fast recovery.  As well as Lewis, the Ravens defense revolves around another linebacker, Terrell Suggs; safety Ed Reed; and cornerback Ladarius Webb, but the latter will be missing on Sunday as he tore an ACL in week 6, ending his season.  The Ravens have faced the zone-read option offense that San Francisco 49ers employ with Kaerpernick just once this season – a 31-28 overtime loss against the Redskins in Week 14 (more on that below).

Prediction

Before the start of the season, on ESPN, 12 experts picked the Packers to win the Super Bowl, 4 went for the Patriots and the Falcons, Cowboys and Eagles were also all selected once; Peter King on Sports Illustrated also backed the Packers; while Bill Simmons on Grantland went for Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks.  As for me?  This is my prediction from my pre-season previewSuperbowl Winner: Baltimore Ravens (after losing to the Redskins in Week 14) – the latter part of the forecast coming from the fact that Washington beat the eventual champion Giants twice last season and prevailed over Green Bay in 2010, before the Packers went on to win the title.  As my pick has come this far, I’m definitely sticking with it – The Pick: Baltimore 28, San Francisco 20

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