Football teams tend to take on the personality of their head coaches, so it should come as no surprise that the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers have so many similarities. After all, their head coaches – Baltimore’s John Harbaugh and San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh – grew up under the same roof.
When these two teams take the field inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans on Sunday evening to fight it out for the Vince Lombardi Trophy, history will be made. It’s the first time in the history of the National Football League that two brothers will coach against each other in the Super Bowl.
Sure, there are some distinct differences between the two quarterbacks, with the young and athletic Colin Kaepernick making just his 10th professional start for the Niners while Baltimore’s Joe Flacco is playing in his 13th playoff game in five seasons. Ravens running back Ray Rice is more of a slasher and dasher compared to San Francisco’s Frank Gore, who likes to run with power and straight ahead.
But defensively, middle linebackers Ray Lewis for Baltimore and Patrick Willis for San Francisco where the same number and they play with the same passion and energy. Willis wears No. 52 in honor of Lewis and directs traffic on that side of the ball with the same fervor.
Ultimately, someone on the periphery could decide the outcome of this game, like so many other Super Bowls. It could be someone who did not dominate Media Day and the interview sessions leading up to the big game. Both teams have waited a long time to return to this stage – since the 1994 season for the Niners and since 2000 for the Ravens, so here are some of the things to keep an eye on during Super Sunday.
Five Things To Watch:
1. How will Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis perform in what will be the final game of his prolific 17-year career – The enigmatic and energetic leader of his team was able to reach deep into his well during the first three rounds of the playoffs and play like the Ray Lewis of old. His comeback from a torn triceps muscle has been inspiring, and then the unexpected distraction of a Sports Illustrated article bringing accusations of the use of illegal substances during his recovery tested his mettle. If Lewis can stay focus and use that as fuel to get him to play hard and smart, he just might succeed in authoring the perfect ending to his career he desires.
2. What will Jim Harbaugh do to confuse his brother and the Ravens defense when it comes to how he utilizes Colin Kaepernick – There is no doubt Baltimore has watched and re-watched film of both of San Francisco’s playoff wins to see if there are any areas of Kaepernick’s game that can be exploited. He was able to beat the Green Bay Packers with his arm and his legs, putting the game away with a 56-yard touchdown run, and then when the Atlanta Falcons sold out to stifle him as a running threat he showed poise and accuracy through the air. Some sort of combined strategy that allows Kaepernick to get all of his receivers, tight ends and running backs involved in the passing game while also keeping the linebackers and secondary honest will have to be deployed, and that means trying to outsmart not only Lewis and veteran free safety Ed Reed, but Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and the other astute Ravens defenders as well. This is where the game can be won or lost.
3. Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin versus Niners safety Donte Whitner – Boldin has been quarterback Joe Flacco’s go-to target in the Red Zone and he has delivered in the postseason with three touchdown receptions. He has used his upper body strong hands to wrestle passes away from defenders in the back of the end zone and having been on the losing side of Super Bowl XLIII with the Arizona Cardinals, Boldin is extra motivated to reverse the outcome this time around. Whitner is one of the few safeties in the league physical enough to take on Boldin and he will have to win those battles in order bolster his team’s chances.
4. Which kicker will handle the pressure better with the game on the line, Baltimore rookie Justin Tucker or San Francisco’s David Akers – Tucker has not been fazed so far in his first NFL season, drilling the game-winning field goal in the second overtime on the road to knock off the Denver Broncos, 38-35. Meanwhile, Akers endured the worst season of his 14-year career with 13 missed field goals on 42 attempts. As close as these two teams in all other categories, it would come as no surprise if the game comes down to a field goal attempt and at this point the edge has to go to Tucker.
5. Can both Harbaugh brothers successfully put aside the emotions that come with this once-in-a-lifetime showdown and make the tough decisions when they are confronted with them – Older brother John has the experience of five seasons to his credit and having coached in 12 pressure-packed playoff games, compared to just four for Jim. But Jim’s rapid ascent up the coaching ranks after turning around the program at Stanford cannot be overlooked. He had San Francisco within an overtime loss to the New York Giants of reaching last year’s Super Bowl and stuck to his guns after making the gutsy switch at quarterback from Alex Smith to Kaepernick. John made a gutsy decision of his own when he fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron with three games left in the season and it worked out for his as well. One of these two will have the guts to do something unexpected Sunday against his sibling, and the one who does should be able to claim family bragging rights – at least for a year.