If I went with my gut, I'd say the 49ers will win by 10-14 points. They have the better offense and the better defense, usually a foolproof recipe for winning football games. But I've been wrong about the Ravens in each of the last two rounds, and you have to respect their back-to-back wins over Peyton Manning and Tom Brady—on the road, no less.
Here are five keys to the game:
- Colin Kaepernick's mindset: The second-year pro out of Nevada has said all the right things this week: "It's just another game... I won't let the pressure get to me... etc." But only one quarterback in NFL history has started fewer career games than Kaepernick and won a Super Bowl. That would be Jeff Hostetler for Giants in Super Bowl XXV, and he got huge assists from Big Blue's elite defense and the unsteady foot of Scott Norwood. In the divisional playoff against Green Bay and NFC Championship game against Atlanta, Kaepernick started slowly, throwing a pick-six early against the Packers and failing to score for the first 20+ minutes against the Falcons. If he starts slow on Sunday, it may be harder to shake off the jitters this time.
Tight-end play: The Ravens love to run an Air Coryell-style post play for their slot receiver, often tight end Dennis Pitta, and Flacco loves to go to Pitta up the middle of the field. San Francisco linebacker NaVorro Bowman made the game-saving pass breakup against Atlanta, and he may be tasked with shutting down Pitta (and elite wideout Anquan Boldin when he lines up in the slot). Meanwhile, Vernon Davis might just be the key to the whole game. After disappearing from the 49ers' offense for the better part of two months, the tight end tore apart the Falcons for six catches, 106 yards and a touchdown. The Ravens don't have a linebacker who can keep up with the speedy Davis (the thought of Ray Lewis chasing after Davis is highly amusing), and he's a matchup nightmare for defensive backs because of his size. Look for Davis to have a huge game.
Ray Lewis vs. the Niners line: Patrick makes a great point about the strength of the San Francisco offensive line and the holes they can open up for Gore and Kaepernick. Lewis has been a tackle machine in the playoffs, racking up a league-leading 44 solo or joint tackles in the postseason. But can he shake off the second-level blocks from Iupati et al and keep Gore in check? It'll be one last big challenge for one of the greatest middle linebackers of all time.
The greater Harbaugh: Both brothers are good coaches, but Jim has emerged as a Belichick-ian strategist who can change up his game plan on the fly. The 49ers embarrassed the Packers and their defensive coordinator, Dom Capers, by going away from the Pistol formation after using it heavily at the end of the regular season. The result was a 45-point outburst that could have been 60, and it was a testament to Jim Harbaugh's craftiness. It remains to be seen whether older brother John can match him in the chess game of Super Bowl game-planning.
Not-so-green Akers: The Ravens' biggest advantage is at kicker, where they send out top rookie Justin Tucker. The 49ers have the worst kicker in the league this season, David Akers, who was so bad that former Ravens' goat Billy Cundiff was auditioned to potentially replace Akers before the playoffs started. Think about that—the kicker on a Super Bowl team has been so poor that his coach considered replacing him for the playoffs! Akers doinked a makeable FG off the post against Atlanta, and Niners fans get what my grandmother calls "agita" every time he lines up a field goal try. As I mentioned earlier with Norwood, Super Bowls have been won and lost by kickers, and Akers could very well become a Norwood-like pariah in the Bay Area.
Final prediction? San Francisco 31, Baltimore 24. No Akers heroics needed.