NEW ORLEANS How the National Football League's (NFL) San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens match up for Sunday's Super Bowl in New Orleans.
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It is the Super Bowl of sibling rivalry as Baltimore's John Harbaugh faces younger brother Jim for the NFL title.
Fifty-year-old John, an outstanding tactician, has reached the postseason in each of his five seasons in Baltimore and won at least one game once he has gotten there. He is 54-26 in the regular season and 8-4 in the playoffs, an outstanding accomplishment with some teams that clearly overachieved. Key move that paid off: Replacing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in December with ex-Indianapolis head coach Jim Caldwell.
Jim, 49, is more emotional than his older brother and has only been a head coach for two years but it is hard to argue with success: he reached the NFC title game a year ago and the next season he is in The Show. Gets points for the bold move of sticking with backup Colin Kaepernick after incumbent Alex Smith could have returned to the line-up following a concussion.
For the record, the Harbaughs have already met once: the Ravens beat the Niners, 16-6, in 2011.
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For sheer firepower, the edge goes to San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, the second-year signal-caller who threw for 10 touchdowns and rushed for five more since entering the starting line-up as a midseason replacement for injured starter Alex Smith. He's athletic (6-foot-5, 233 pounds), dynamic and has the ability to steal the show. But he's only started a handful of NFL games and how he holds up on under the glare of Super Bowl Sunday is anyone's guess.
"Just because you haven't been in a situation before doesn't mean you have to feel pressure from it," Kaepernick insists.
The Ravens' Joe Flacco does not possess the explosiveness of Kaepernick, but has led the Ravens to the postseason in each of his five years in the league and won at least one game once he's gotten there. He threw a pedestrian 22 TDs and 10 interceptions in the regular season but is peaking at the right time, including a three touchdown, no interception performance against New England in the AFC title game.
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Led by the linebacking duo of NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis and Pro Bowl safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, the Niners defense ranked third in the NFL this season, giving up an average of 294 yards per game. Throw in the franchise-record 19.5 sacks by Pro Bowl defensive end Aldon Smith and you have a unit worthy of lifting the Lombardi Trophy. SF ranked fourth in both rushing and passing defense.
Baltimore's numbers were not as eye-popping, ranking 17th overall in the NFL. But future first-ballot Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis, one of the most inspirational players in the game, is retiring after the Super Bowl and will surely have the troops prepared. Four-time Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata anchors the line and former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Ed Reed the secondary. It is a unit not as young as it used to be but do not dismiss the value of experience.
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Kaepernick's versatility enables San Francisco's Pistol offense to run on all cylinders. Defenses cannot drop back in passing situations because Kaepernick could take off running. Four-time Pro Bowler Frank Gore rushed for more than 1,200 yards this season to anchor a better-than-average rushing game and long-ball receiving threats Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis give Kaepernick plenty of options when he drops back to pass. The Niners averaged 362 yards during the regular season but 476 in the playoffs.
Baltimore's offense centered around dual-purpose running back Ray Rice (1,143 yards rushing, 478 yards receiving) for much of the season but Flacco has evolved into a big-play quarterback that can find big-time receivers Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith or Dennis Pitta in the end zone on any play. Like the Niners, the Ravens' offense has shined in the playoffs, averaging 424 yards compared to 352 during the regular season.
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The Kicking Game
The advantage here clearly favors the Ravens. Well, probably. Ravens undrafted rookie Justin Tucker has been nothing short of phenomenal this year while his the Niners' normally reliable David Akers is struggling at the worst time. The unflappable Tucker nailed 30 of 33 field goal attempts (91 percent) this season, including all four from 50 yards and out. He calmly booted a 47-yarder in the second overtime to beat the Denver Broncos in the AFC divisional round.
The 38-year-old Akers opened the season with a record-tying 63-yarder against the Green Bay Packers but has since nearly shanked his way out of a job. But he is a six-time Pro Bowler and has been to the Super Bowl before, after the 2004 season when his Philadelphia Eagles lost to New England. He knows he is on the back nine of his career. "A lot of guys work really hard and they never get this opportunity," he said. "I've been here twice now, we lost the first one, and hopefully things will be a little bit different this Sunday."
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San Francisco better keep an eye -- or perhaps 22 eyes -- on Jacoby Jones, the Ravens' Pro Bowler who led the NFL in yards per kickoff return (30.7). This year he became the only player to have two kickoff returns of at least 105 yards in the same season (105, 108). If winning a title is not enough incentive, Jones, who tied Tennessee's Darius Reynaud for most returns for TDs with three, is a New Orleans native.
The 49ers ranked 31st in the regular season in defending kickoffs. Akers, who kicks off for the Niners, "has got a really strong leg," says Jones. "He can kick out of the end zone and that punter (Andy Lee, 48.1 average), he's a climber too. So you've got to be patient and wait on your opportunities." Sam Koch, with a 47.1 average, does the punting for the Ravens, while Tucker kicks off and does a better-than-average job putting the ball in the end zone.
(Reporting By Steve Ginsburg; Editing by Frank Pingue)