BY CHAYIM TAUBER
A year ago, there was no more depressing household than the Harbaugh household. Jim’s 49ers were eliminated in overtime, primarily because of a kick return and punt return miscue that allowed the Giants to advance. John’s Ravens were in the Super Bowl but for Lee Evans’ unsteady hands in the endzone and a 32-yard field goal that Billy Cundiff pulled wide left.
This year brings a new breed of torture to the household of Jack and Jackie Harbaugh as they watch their sons lead their respective squads onto the grandest stage of them all.
John leads the team that has already recruited destiny to their squad. Potentially season-ending injuries to Terrell Suggs and Captain Ray Lewis were overcome as both cornerstones returned. The death of Torrey Smith’s brother inspired Torrey to have a huge game in his honor and then continue to produce in a big way for the duration of the season and playoffs, morphing into the Ravens top receiving threat.
They had all but lost their opening playoff game to the Denver Broncos, the Denver win probability was at 98 percent with a minute left in the game before Jacoby Jones miraculously got behind the defense and Joe Flacco delivered the bomb that would lead them here. What few people know is that this is also future Hall-of-Famer Ray Lewis’s last game in the NFL, further imbuing this team with a sense of desperation and with the feeling that “this is our time”.
On Jim’s side stands his legacy. The defense he inherited was phenomenal; pro bowl defensive players at every position. The offensive line he had was one of, if not, the best in the NFL. But it wasn’t enough for Jim Harbaugh who unseated an injured Alex Smith, the starting quarterback that took San Francisco within a dropped kick of the Super Bowl, in favor of an untested, unproven kid. That kid, has turned into a whirling, gun-slingin’, bicep-kissing phenom that is one of the most unstoppable forces in the NFL right now.
That’s where every comparison begins, at the quarterback position where two teams feature quarterbacks that made names for themselves this season and launched themselves into the hated “elite” conversation.
Joe Flacco, after years toiling under the Joe Fluke-O moniker, is getting his due recognition as one of the best deep-ball quarterbacks in the league and one of the better quarterbacks in general. “Joe Flacco’s gone Joe Montanna on Tom Brady TWICE, and on Peyton Manning before him,” admits ESPN’S Skip Bayless. Despite occasional lapses into “Fluke-O” where he will make awful decisions and has brutal games, his overall body of work, particularly in the postseason, has been stellar.
But he’s no Colin Kaepernick, the newest “revolutionary weapon” in the NFL. Just look at Kaepernick’s stat line against the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round. 263 yards throwing, 181 yards rushing, threw for two touchdowns and ran for two.
The next week, in trying to prepare for Kaepernick’s rushing ability, the 49ers took advantage of Atlanta’s overcompensation by handing the ball off to Frank Gore and watched him gash their D repeatedly throughout the course of the game. So what to do?
The pistol offense that Kaepernick runs is similar to the option the Redskins run with RGIII. He has the option to keep or hand it off on nearly every run play and there’s no way for the defense to know who to contain. What makes it worse is Kaepernick’s greatest weapon: that arm.
Kaepernick was throwing 95mph fastballs in college and that arm strength has transferred to the gridiron. He throws the hardest ball in the league and what looks like the hardest ball since Favre. He routinely throws 10 or 15 yard slants or outs on a rope making it completely indefensible. What makes matters worse for the defense is that his running ability means that extra help can’t be given in the secondary where everyone from Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss to Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker become viable threats. Baltimore’s secondary wasn’t great, allowing 228 yards per game through the air (17th in the NFL) and are in a three-way tie at 15th for sacks. This defense, though buoyed and inspired by the legendary Ray Lewis, may have some trouble stopping Kaepernick.
What bodes even worse for the vaunted Baltimore D, is how bad they’ve been against the run. They rank 20th in the NFL against the run this season, yielding 122.8 rushing yards per game and rank 23rd in rushing touchdowns allowed (15). Though they’ve admittedly been better a bit better in the playoffs, it’s the offense that’s carried the Ravens and with the defense playing for the other side, the Ravens can ill-afford to get into a shootout.
It’s incredible how evenly these teams are matched. Both defenses have fearsome reputations (though in all actuality, the Baltimore defense is a shadow of its former self and can be exploited). Both quarterbacks are prone to making dumb mistakes but have the skill set to carry an offense. Both teams are led by an outspoken Pro Bowl middle linebacker and have a Harbaugh in their headset. Both teams implement their tight end as one of their most important and effective pass-catching weapons and both teams love to run with their pro-bowl running backs behind their big physical lines.
The most intriguing matchup of this game will be the one the average fan will miss. Ravens new LT Bryant McKinnie matched up against pass-rush specialist Aldon Smith, Pro Bowlers Marshall Yanda and Matt Birk against All Pro Justin Smith in the middle and most intriguing, Vonta Leach, Ray Rice, and the Baltimore running game against the Niners front line and their All-Pro linebacking corps of Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman. The battle in the trenches should go a long way in determining who brings home the trophy.
The one scenario that Jim has to be praying doesn’t come to pass is that this game comes down to special teams. Not only is the memory of last season’s fumbles against the Giants still fresh in his memory, but kicker David Akers, one of the best to ever do it, has suddenly lost the ability to hit field goals. To make matters worse, Baltimore returner Jacoby Jones has been incredible this season to the point that he was elected as the AFC’s representative returner in the Pro Bowl. If this game, as so many in years past have, comes down to special teams, then it’s safe to say that Baltimore has the advantage.
But the advantage is negligible. “Styles make fights” and rarely has there been a Super Bowl where both teams were so evenly matched. The San Francisco D is one of the best in the NFL but has been lit up by the Falcons and the Packers in the past two games. On the flipside, the Ravens D has been somewhat porous throughout the season but has tightened up considerably in the postseason, locking down the Indianapolis Colts and the Patriots.
This game is a coin flip and should be one of the better ones in memory (the halftime show can ONLY be an improvement). Vegas has the 49ers as 4 point favorites but it could go either way. No matter what happens, there will be both rejoice and heartbreak in the Harbaugh household on Sunday.