- Ashley Fox
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NEW ORLEANS -- What is the definition of being competitive? To some, it is hating to lose. To Joe Flacco, it is your will to win.
"Part of playing and part of doing what we do is losing, and losing in very tough situations and losing very tough games," Flacco told me six months ago during the Baltimore Ravens' training camp. "Being competitive is saying, 'Hey, I've got to get back up, and we've got to do it all over again and it's going to take a lot of work, but we should be able to do it.'"
Flacco was talking about overcoming the Ravens' AFC title loss last season to the New England Patriots, when a dropped Lee Evans pass was the difference between Baltimore playing in Super Bowl XLVI and going home. Flacco felt at the time that the Ravens could make another postseason run and reach a third AFC title game during his tenure in Baltimore, and win it.
So much has happened in the six months since Flacco, a new father, showed me pictures of his newborn son on his iPhone. There was the referees' lockout and the Fail Mary, the return of Peyton Manning and the disappearance of Tim Tebow, the emergence of the confounding pistol offense and the clutch play of the rookie quarterbacks. There was the feel-good story of the season as the Indianapolis Colts rallied around their ailing coach, Chuck Pagano, and the colossal disappointments that were the New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles.
There was the merciful end to the bounty scandal and the recent return of Sean Payton as the New Orleans Saints' coach. There was the birth of new stars such as Colin Kaepernick, J.J. Watt, A.J. Green and Julio Jones. There were goodbyes to eight head coaches, including Andy Reid and Lovie Smith, and hellos to Chip Kelly, Marc Trestman and Doug Marrone, among others.
And there have been these electric playoffs, with four of the 10 games decided by a touchdown or less, including the Ravens' dramatic overtime win at Denver in the AFC divisional round and the 49ers' come-from-behind win over Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game.
Now we have Super Bowl XLVII, Baltimore and San Francisco in a game with more storylines than Flacco has playoff wins (he has eight, by the way). Can Ray Lewis punctuate his magnificent career with a second ring? Can Flacco end the ridiculous debate about whether he is elite? Can Kaepernick continue to amaze with his ignorance to pressure?
Here are 10 questions about a game so big it has been unofficially renamed the HarBowl.
1. Which Harbaugh brother is a better coach, John or Jim?
Let's just say they've both made their parents, Jack and Jackie, proud.
John, the Ravens' head coach, is the only coach in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons. Plus, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, his streak of five playoff appearances to begin his NFL coaching career is tied for the third-longest ever. Since John took over before the 2008 season, Baltimore has a 54-26 regular-season record, third-best in the NFL behind only New England (60-20) and Atlanta (56-24). Including the playoffs, only the Patriots (63) have more wins than the Ravens (62) since the start of the 2008 season.
Jim, the 49ers' head coach, can join George Seifert and Barry Switzer as the only coaches in NFL history to win 28 games (including playoffs) in their first two seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Jim took over a San Francisco team that had gone 6-10 in 2010 under Mike Singletary and had a minus-2.6 points differential per game. In Jim's two seasons, the Niners have posted a 24-7-1 regular-season record and a plus-8.6 average points differential.
So John and Jim have both done an incredible job.
2. What can we expect from Kaepernick?
His ascent to the Super Bowl has been historic. Only two quarterbacks entered a Super Bowl with fewer starts than Kaepernick. Jeff Hostetler had six starts when he led the New York Giants to victory over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV. Vince Ferragamo had seven when he quarterbacked the Los Angeles Rams in a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIV.
Kaepernick has nine career starts. He turned 25 in November. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he will be the sixth-youngest quarterback to start a Super Bowl and could become the third-youngest quarterback to win one, behind Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady, who have had pretty decent careers.
What Kaepernick has shown in the playoffs is that he is equally capable of beating a team with his legs (Green Bay) or his arm (Atlanta). He is big and strong and fast, and he gives San Francisco a dimension that defenses typically aren't used to, one that is difficult to defend. Linebackers freeze when Kaepernick looks to option the ball, and then they are stuck.
People have expected Kaepernick to show his youth and inexperience throughout the playoffs and fold under pressure. He hasn't done that, nor do I expect that he will Sunday.
"Colin is one of the rarest athletes I have been around, and I have been around a lot of them," San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "I think he is one of the rarest athletes in the NFL at the position. A guy that can throw it with such accuracy, run and have the mind he has, it is a dangerous weapon."
3. What do you make of Flacco?
Veteran Baltimore center Matt Birk told an interesting story about Flacco this week. Apparently, Flacco is generous to his offensive linemen at Christmastime, including this past Christmas when he gave each of them an upscale set of speakers. The linemen wanted to return the favor, so Birk did what he called "some recon work."
"Joe, do you golf?" Birk asked Flacco, thinking they could get him new clubs.
"Nah, I don't golf," Flacco said.
"Do you fish?" Birk asked, thinking they could get him some fishing gear.
"Nah, I don't fish," Flacco said.
"Well, what do you do in your off time?" Birk asked.
"I like to sit around and hang out in my basement," Flacco said.
So the linemen bought Flacco a pinball machine.
"That's just Joe," Birk said. "He's definitely not the prima donna-type, pretty-boy quarterback. He's just Joe. That's how he approaches every day. He's one of the guys. He comes to work every day to work, and it's been fun to watch him get better."
Never rattled. Not impressed by himself. Doesn't fear failure. This stage is definitely not too big for Flacco.
4. Which team has the better offensive line?
San Francisco and Baltimore could not have two more different offensive line stories. The 49ers' line -- left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Mike Iupati, center Jonathan Goodwin, right guard Alex Boone and right tackle Anthony Davis -- is one of three O-lines in the NFL to have started every game this season. They have is a familiarity and comfort level that only happens with experience and time.
The Ravens debuted a new offensive line for the playoffs. Bryant McKinnie, a reserve all season, started at left tackle. Kelechi Osemele, who started 16 games at right tackle, moved to left guard. Birk remained at center and Marshal Yanda stayed at right guard, while Michael Oher, who started 16 games at left tackle, moved to right tackle. That alignment has played every snap of the postseason and, according to ESPN Stats & Information, has allowed only four sacks in 99 Flacco drop-backs.
"You're really rolling the dice, switching guys around like that," Yanda said. "And you're in the playoffs, so if something goes wrong or you have a bad game, we're done, we're not here right now. Those guys did a really good job of not missing a beat."
Still, I'll take experience over inexperience. Edge: 49ers.
5. San Francisco is down two points with three seconds to play at the Ravens' 32-yard line. Does David Akers make the field goal?
I'd like to think so, for Akers' sake. The 38-year-old has played 14 seasons, is a six-time Pro Bowler, and is making his second Super Bowl appearance. Going out as the guy to cost the Niners a record-tying sixth championship would be tough for Akers to take.
But even he admits this season has been rocky. Akers has had hernia problems, which may or may not have contributed to his missing 10 of 19 attempts from 40 yards or more this season. I asked someone close to Akers whether his struggles are due to injury or confidence, and the person didn't know, which was telling. To make a game-winning kick under the most intense pressure requires a kicker to have confidence in himself, in the long-snapper and in the holder, because as Akers himself said, it is "a game of inches."
"It's been one of those seasons where if I had an answer for you, I would've changed it and the outcome would've been a lot different by now," Akers said. "Has it been frustrating? Sure. Personally, it's been a roller-coaster year."
So does Akers make the kick? If the recent past is any indicator, no.
6. How big of an impact will Lewis have?
Lewis can't run sideline to sideline like he did in his prime. He is a between-the-tackles run-stopper who has gotten more credit than he deserves in the postseason for tackles.
Nevertheless, Lewis is the best motivator of men ever to play the game. His teammates believe in him. They play for him. They are inspired by him. They draw strength from his confidence in them. It is an intangible that can't be measured by statistics or tackles.
"We're definitely motivated to play for Ray to try to send him off as a Super Bowl champion," defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said.
7. Why the 49ers?
They have six All-Pros on defense. Linebackers NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis and safety Dashon Goldson were named to the first team. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks and defensive tackle/end Justin Smith were named to the second team.
San Francisco is suffocating on defense. It allowed 4.65 yards per play during the regular season, third in the NFL behind Denver and Pittsburgh. Its opponents scored on only 26.7 percent of their possessions, second to only Chicago.
The 49ers allowed a league-low 36 drives into the end zone, a league-low 157 plays of 10 or more yards, and a league-low seven touchdowns of 10 or more yards.
"This game is going to be about physicality," Justin Smith said. "The winner is going [to] out-physical whoever they are playing. ... We know their game plan, and we know how we are going to attack it. We are just going to try and shut the run game down."
8. Why the Ravens?
Yes, they like to establish the run with Ray Rice. It is their staple and they are committed to it. But the Ravens have shown they can win through the air as well, and this postseason Flacco has thrown eight touchdowns and zero interceptions. Anquan Boldin will be a handful coming out of the slot. He doesn't get separation, yet he catches everything thrown his direction. Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones have the speed to win the outside matchups.
If the Ravens have to beat San Francisco with their vertical passing attack, they are more than capable of doing so.
"I think the biggest thing that will get us off to a good start and be able to challenge those guys will be our offensive line doing a great job protecting and run blocking for our running backs," Flacco said. "If they can start off good and kind of set the tone, then we'll be able to do what we want to and get a little bit of the stuff that we think can throw [San Francisco] off a little bit.
"If not, it may be a tough day for us. But I think our offensive line has been doing a great job, and if they can continue to do that, then we'll do what we want to be able to do."
9. Is there anything to playoff destiny?
Green Bay certainly had it two years ago. The Giants had it last year. Teams get hot at a certain time and it seems as if no one or nothing can stop them. With Lewis choosing to announce his retirement prior to the start of the playoffs, it gave the Ravens a win-one-for-Ray edge that they rode to the Super Bowl.
But listen to Torrey Smith on this one.
"I don't like throwing around the destiny thing," he said, "because we worked hard to be in this position. ... We deserve to be here, but more importantly we earned it."
That they did.
10. So which team do I like?
I took an inordinate amount of heat from Ravens fans for picking Denver to end Baltimore's run in the divisional round. I was wrong. I apologize.
Six months ago, before this season began, John Harbaugh told me: "You should get on the Flacco bandwagon." Consider me on it.
Baltimore 31, San Francisco 27 in a classic.