NFL playoffs: Early look at Super Bowl XLVII, Ravens-49ers
Even though the San Francisco 49ers failed to secure the NFC's top playoff seed, their appearance in the Super Bowl comes as no surprise to most people. The Ravens, on the other hand, limped into the playoffs as losers of four of their last five regular season games and faced what looked like an impossible road to New Orleans.
Three weeks later, here we are.
The Ravens will be making their first Super Bowl appearance since winning it all during the 2000 season. The 49ers have not competed on the NFL's biggest stage since the 1994 campaign -- a drought during which 12 other NFC teams played for the Lombardi.
Neither team has lost in the Super Bowl: San Francisco is 5-0, and the Ravens victorious in that lone trip.
As always, there promises to be more than enough coverage of these teams to go around in the coming days. Here is what you need to know to get the ball rolling:
Super Bowl XLVII
Baltimore Ravens (13-6) vs. San Francisco 49ers (13-4-1), Feb. 3, 6:30 p.m. ET, CBS
The buzzword talking points you'll need to know for the next two weeks include: the "HarBowl" (brothers Jim and John Harbaugh coaching against each other), Ray Lewis' final game in the NFL, Joe Flacco's status as an elite quarterback and Colin Kaepernick's elevation of the pistol formation and read-option offense.
The matchup itself, however, dives far deeper than that quartet of issues.
The playbooks for the Ravens and 49ers are very, very different, but the main principles behind them are very similar. Both teams will do what they can to establish their potent run games -- San Francisco with Frank Gore and LaMichael James, Baltimore with Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce -- to open up other areas of the field.
Baltimore's complementary weapons around the Rice/Pierce duo have proven to be no slouches this playoff season. Both Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta stepped up in Sunday's win over the Patriots, and Torrey Smith will challenge San Francisco's secondary downfield.
This one could come down to the defenses, though, especially if the AFC and NFC championship games were any indication. The 49ers allowed 24 points to Atlanta in the first half of the NFC contest, before pitching a second-half shutout to rally for the win. The Ravens also held their opponent off the scoreboard over the final two quarters, as they turned a 13-7 deficit into a comfortable 28-13 win.
Two weeks of rest could pay dividends for both units -- San Francisco's Justin Smith and Baltimore's Ray Lewis are each playing through painful torn tricep muscles, while Terrell Suggs is dealing with a similar injury to his bicep. The 49ers' Aldon Smith, meanwhile, seemingly has hit the wall in his second season and might be a force with some extra time to recuperate.
Baltimore may have to attack San Francisco much as it did Denver and New England: by taking the shackles off Flacco.
The Falcons sprinted out to their 10-point halftime lead on the 49ers by stretching the field with Jones, White and Gonzalez. San Francisco adjusted after halftime, but the Ravens may find matchups against the likes of Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown appealing.
That may be especially true if the 49ers' top-5 run defense gets the job done, as it did Sunday in holding the Falcons to 81 yards on the ground.
Despite Tom Brady's Sunday meltdown, the Ravens can be passed on, as well -- Baltimore finished 17th in the league against the pass. But San Francisco may have more success against the run, where the Ravens' defense ranked just 20th during the regular season.
Baltimore saw an offense similar to San Francisco's Kaepernick-heavy attack just once this season, in a Week 14 overtime loss to Washington. Robert Griffin III totaled 276 yards in that game, before leaving with an injury. His backup, Kirk Cousins, helped the Redskins tie the game late and win it in overtime.
The numbers trend in San Francisco's direction, on paper -- as evidenced by early lines favoring the 49ers by four or so points. Being the underdog would be nothing new for the Ravens, who shocked the world on back-to-back weekends by winning at Denver and New England. The only certainty here is that there will be plenty to discuss between now and kickoff on Feb. 3.