FOUR PLAYERS TO WATCH
1. Joe Flacco, Ravens QB Hard to believe that Joe Flacco's contract expires Sunday evening. His first Super Bowl win would tie Tom Brady with a record nine postseason victories. A traditional deep-ball passer, Flacco still has no interceptions and eight touchdowns this postseason. Only Joe Montana (11-0 in 1989) and Steve Young (9-0 in 1994) finished with at least nine TDs and no INTs in a postseason. "Playoff time is when Joe plays his best football," said former Super Bowl-winning QB Kurt Warner.
2. Colin Kaepernick, 49ers QB In his 10th NFL start, Kaepernick (left) is trying to join Montana (four) and Young (one) as 49ers QBs to win a Super Bowl. He's 7-2 with a 101.2 passer rating, 13 touchdowns and four interceptions since taking over in Week 11. He also has 440 yards rushing with four touchdowns. In the NFC title game against Atlanta, Kaepernick threw for 233 yards on only 21 passes. His 11.1-yard average per attempt broke Montana's postseason team mark of 10.7.
3. Ray Lewis, Ravens LB
The last original Raven still playing will retire in what surely will be an emotional boost for Baltimore. The Super Bowl MVP from 12 years ago tore his triceps in October but returned in time for the playoffs. Since then, he's had an NFL-high 44 tackles while taking down Peyton Manning and Tom Brady en route to the Superdome. He's also surrounded by controversy following a report that he took a banned substance to enhance his recovery.
4. Patrick Willis, 49ers LB Former Vikings coach Brad Childress might have put it best when he said Willis is "a rolling ball of butcher knives." Willis, the other No. 52 in this game, already has supplanted Lewis as the NFL's best inside linebacker. And one of his top competitors for that title is NaVorro Bowman, who plays right next to him. If Willis and Bowman stuff the Ravens' inside running game, it could be a long night in the pocket for Flacco.
THREE KEYS TO THE GAME
1. How will the Ravens handle the pistol? Kaepernick's rare skills present a dizzying array of options when he runs the zone-read play out of the pistol formation. Can the Ravens possibly be prepared to handle all of them? And even if they are, will they be in position to do anything about it? The zone-read play out of the pistol creates blocking angles that are a lineman's dream. Baltimore's linebackers are going to have to play deeper to avoid being trapped. And, oh yeah, Kaepernick can also throw any pass he wants on a rope into a small window.
2. How will the 49ers pressure Flacco? The 49ers' exceptional pass rush has disappeared the past five games as RDE Justin Smith struggles with a triceps/elbow injury. San Francisco has only two postseason sacks, which is why it's 11th out of 12 teams in average passing yards allowed (322.0). OLB Aldon Smith had 19 1/2 sacks in the first 13 games but has none in the past five games because he's accustomed to feeding off Justin Smith's play.
3. Who will kick it better? The advantage at place-kicker goes to the team that has the undrafted rookie, not the 16-year veteran who has kicked in a Super Bowl before. While the rookie -- Baltimore's Justin Tucker -- has made 32 of 35 field goal attempts, including two of two in the postseason, San Francisco's David Akers has missed 14 field goals, including one of two in the postseason. The 49ers were so confounded, they signed Billy Cundiff, the goat in the Ravens' AFC title game loss in 2011, as insurance but have since released him.
TWO UNSUNG HEROES
Frank Gore, 49ers RB Lost in the Kaepernick Kraze is one of the best running backs in football. When the Falcons took away Kaepernick’s outside option in zone-read play in the NFC title game, the QB simply handed off inside to Gore. Gore has a league postseason-high three touchdowns rushing, including two in the NFC title game. He’s also averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
Bryant McKinnie, Ravens LT The guy who let the Vikings down by falling woefully out of shape before being released in 2011 has been a quiet savior for the Ravens. McKinnie didn’t start a regular-season game but has come through as a starter in the postseason. When left guard Jah Reid was injured, the Ravens moved right tackle Kelechi Osemele to left guard, left tackle Michael Oher to right tackle and brought McKinnie in off the bench.
ONE BOLD PREDICTION
People don’t think the Ravens defense can stop all the looks that Kaepernick and the 49ers offense have to offer. But this is a team that dismissed Manning and Brady from the playoffs in consecutive weeks. The Patriots were 67-0 in games they led at halftime until the Ravens outscored them 21-0 in the second half of the AFC title game. The Ravens have allowed an average of 19.0 points in three postseason games. The 49ers have allowed 27.5 in two postseason games. Ravens 31, 49ers 24