- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Who has it better than the Harbaughs?
Who has it tougher than Jack Harbaugh, the proud father of Jim and John Harbaugh, the two Super Bowl coaches? "Who has it better than us?" is the mantra Jack Harbaugh always preached in teaching his sons the game of football.
The Big Easy gets to host a family affair. Super Bowl XLVII turns out to be a refreshing change from the past. John's Baltimore Ravens upset the New England Patriots 28-13 in the AFC Championship Game. Jim's San Francisco 49ers will be trying for their sixth Super Bowl trophy after edging the Atlanta Falcons 28-24 in the NFC Championship Game.
With both road teams winning conference championship games for only the fourth time, the six quarterbacks who have worn all the Super Bowl rings since 2003 have been eliminated. This will be a Super Bowl battle between Colin Kaepernick and Joe Flacco, two of the most unlikely competitors.
During Super Bowl week, Ray Lewis' great career will be heralded with a final game in the spotlight he has been looking to enjoy again. The mystery of whether Ed Reed will return to the Ravens will be talked about.
A Harbaugh Super Bowl was a possibility last year, but both teams lost in the championship games. On Sunday, the dream of a Harbaugh lifetime has come true.
Here are 10 questions worth asking about the Super Bowl XLVII matchup:
1. What lessons could NFL head coaches learn from this Super Bowl? Don't be afraid to make bold decisions. Both Harbaughs made bold, tough decisions that opened the door for their teams to reach the Super Bowl. Jim Harbaugh made the boldest decision. He benched Alex Smith after he played some of his best football. Smith, who suffered a concussion after completing 25 of 27 passes in one stretch, lost his job to Kaepernick. John Harbaugh had his own tough decision. Flacco wasn't doing well with the offense under coordinator Cam Cameron. Harbaugh fired Cameron and replaced him with Jim Caldwell. Caldwell was the Ravens' quarterbacks coach and a former Colts head coach, but he had never called an offensive play in the pros. With Caldwell making the calls, Flacco got hot and won three playoff games. One tough decision may still be brewing. Jim Harbaugh may have to re-sign kicker Billy Cundiff after David Akers missed a 38-yard field goal attempt inside the Georgia Dome on Sunday. A couple of weeks ago, Harbaugh signed Cundiff because Akers was missing too many kicks. Akers is in a slump. Cundiff might be brought back in to challenge him.
2. Which player was the biggest winner Sunday? No question it was Flacco. He's in a contract year and will be a free agent after the season. But he's now 8-4 as a playoff quarterback, and his six road wins in the playoffs are the most in NFL history. Timing is everything. Contract talks for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan are about to begin, and he will receive close to $20 million a year. Flacco and Ryan entered the league together in 2008, but Ryan has won only one playoff game. Flacco has battled critics for years, but now he's on top. Will he get $20 million? Debatable. John Harbaugh said he let Flacco take control of the game after the first half Sunday. "We let him cut it loose a little more," Harbaugh said. Over the past two weeks, Flacco beat Peyton Manning and Tom Brady to get to the Super Bowl. Maybe he will be recognized as an elite quarterback.
3. Will there be other sentimental journeys similar to that of Lewis? Ravens center Matt Birk is probably ending a 15-year career. Niners receiver Randy Moss, in his 14th season after taking 2011 off, is in a similar situation. An amazing part of their careers is that they were rookies together on the 1998 Minnesota Vikings team that went 15-1 and didn't make it to the Super Bowl. That team lost to the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. The Ravens and the 49ers are among the older teams in the league. San Francisco defensive end Justin Smith was sentimental about his trip to the Super Bowl. After playing Sunday with a partially torn triceps muscle, the 12-year veteran said he doesn't know how many games he has left in his body. His teammates, though, realized how special this championship game was. Most of them circled over to him to celebrate after the close win over the Falcons.
4. What is the historical significance of Super Bowl XLVII? The 49ers proved a running quarterback can make it to the Super Bowl, something that has been missing since the days of Steve Young. Because of the quickness of defenses, pocket passers have been the trendy quarterbacks in this game, whether it's Brady, Manning or Eli Manning. Kaepernick brings a strong arm to go with his strong, fast legs. "If it wasn't for him, it would have been a tough game for us to win," 49ers running back Frank Gore said. Michael Vick was one of the greatest runners this league has seen at the quarterback position. He could avoid tacklers like Barry Sanders along with being able to throw the ball 70 yards on a spiral. But he could advance the Falcons only as far as one trip to a championship game. In just his ninth NFL start, Kaepernick led the 49ers to a Super Bowl. Kaepernick has it all. His running ability opens the middle of the field for the running backs. He has a strong, accurate arm. His work ethic is praised by his teammates. "I remember when I first met him during the lockout," Justin Smith said. "He was doing sit-ups. He's a tough, competitive, physical guy." Kaepernick now opens the door for running quarterbacks such as Seattle's Russell Wilson and Washington's Robert Griffin III to think about going to Super Bowls instead of just making the playoffs.
5. What will the Ravens' defense have to figure out over the next two weeks to prepare for Kaepernick? Few defenses have successfully figured out how to stop the read option. For the final three quarters, the Falcons were at a complete loss responding to Kaepernick's read-option fakes. Kaepernick ran the ball only twice, and his only run for positive yardage, a 23-yarder, was just a pure scramble. Nevertheless, the Falcons were vulnerable to the rest of the 49ers running the ball. Kaepernick said the Falcons concentrated on stopping the outside runs, hoping to contain him from running wide like he did while rushing for 181 yards against the Green Bay Packers last week. The 49ers expected one Falcons defender to spy him. What Kaepernick did was fake the run and then hand off to Gore. The middle of the field was open. "I knew all week they were talking about preventing Kaep from getting outside," Gore said. "I knew going in I was going to have a great chance to make plays." Gore rushed for 90 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries. It seems as though the Falcons' defense parted in the middle because it was worried about Kaepernick's running ability. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the 49ers used the read option 13 times Sunday. Backs averaged 5.2 yards and scored three touchdowns on those plays. The Ravens had only one game against a read-option quarterback in 2012. They lost to the Redskins 31-28 in overtime in Week 14. They may be suited to stop the read option because they run a 3-4, but it won't be easy.
6. How do you put the 49ers into perspective heading into this Super Bowl? They are old-school. Jim Harbaugh entered coaching with a quarterback background, but he has the old-school approach to the game. Credit that to training from former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler. Although he has worked with Andrew Luck in college and Alex Smith and Kaepernick in the pros, Harbaugh uses the old-school approach of running the football and not spreading the field with wide receivers. During the regular season, the 49ers used three-receiver sets only 13.2 plays a game, lowest in the league. He has used two- and three-tight end sets. He did the same at Stanford when everyone else was using four- and five-receiver sets. "We believe in running the football," Justin Smith said. "If you are good running the ball and stopping the run, you are going to do well." Of late, though, teams have shifted more to passing. The Patriots (who ran the ball 40.5 percent of the time) and New York Giants (40 percent) met last year in the Super Bowl and weren't good running teams. The Packers won Super Bowl XLV with a team that ran the ball 42.1 percent of the time. The Saints won the year before that running 45.3 percent of the time. The 49ers are old-school. They rushed 50.8 percent of the time in 2012. Their defense stays away from a lot of situational substitution, working mostly with a group of 13 defenders. They'll substitute a cornerback for a nose tackle when teams go to three receivers, but that's just about it. Old-school.
7. What's the injury situation for both teams? The 49ers are completely healthy. Justin Smith, playing with a partially torn triceps muscle, started slowly in the first quarter Sunday but got stronger and finished the game playing well. Cornerback Tarell Brown (shoulder), linebacker Aldon Smith (shoulder) and fullback Bruce Miller (shoulder) were on last week's injury report, but they all played and didn't suffer any setbacks. The Ravens are in good shape, too. Cornerback Asa Jackson missed the game with a thigh injury. Halfback Bernard Pierce (knee), fullback Vonta Leach (knee, ankle), wide receiver David Reed (thigh) and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (ankle) were listed as questionable, but all played.
8. How should having Jerome Boger as the referee affect the game? It could lead to a lower-scoring Super Bowl. Games handled by Boger's crew this season averaged 41.3 points, 4.4 fewer than the league average and the second-lowest in football. The league assembles an all-star crew of officials for the Super Bowl, so some of the trends won't completely hold up. Still, Boger tends to be involved with a few more holding calls than most other officials. His 35 holding penalties were eighth-most among the 17 crews of officials.
9. What's the biggest change in the 49ers since they lost the NFC title game last season? Clearly, it's Kaepernick. The team believes in him. "We respect the decisions of our coach," tight end Vernon Davis said. "A lot of guys weren't happy about it [the benching of Alex Smith]." Those who didn't like the decision grew to like Kaepernick. He works hard. Justin Smith said Kaepernick doesn't flinch in tough situations. Sunday's comeback from a 17-point deficit was the second-largest ever for a conference championship game. "He just played great," Jim Harbaugh said. "I don't even know the words to say it. It was a great performance by the quarterback, and there were others. He just competes like a maniac all the time, in practice and in games." The significance of Kaepernick's ability is the 49ers weren't a team built for big comebacks. Sure, they had a few under Alex Smith. But Kaepernick has the throwing ability to work two-minute drives and the running ability to move the chains and turn third downs into first downs with scrambles.
10. Which team has the star power? As far as pure players, it's the 49ers. They have an NFL-best nine Pro Bowl selections. This team is built in a scary way. It has six Pro Bowl defenders: defensive end Justin Smith, linebackers Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman and safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson. The offensive line is loaded, with left tackle Joe Staley and guard Mike Iupati on the Pro Bowl roster. Running back Gore also made it. The Ravens have six Pro Bowlers; not too shabby but no match for the 49ers. Kick returner Jacoby Jones, fullback Leach, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, safety Reed, running back Ray Rice and guard Marshal Yanda are Baltimore's Pro Bowlers. They'll all have to replaced on the NFC roster, of course, since they'll be busy getting ready for the Super Bowl.