San Francsico running back Frank Gore
presents a big problem for the Ravens
' rush defense. (AP)
NEW ORLEANS -- In the divisional round the 49ers throttled Green Bay, rendering Aaron Rodgers irrelevant as Colin Kaepernick shredded an unprepared Packers defense. One week later, in the NFC title game, the 49ers spotted the Falcons 17 points -- in Atlanta, in front of a raucous crowd -- before finishing the game on a 28-7 run.
Both games showed off the best of the 49ers. When they rev the engine and step on the gas, their blend of athleticism and talent is unrivaled in the NFL.
Will the 49ers find that dominant zone on Sunday? Here are five reasons they will and, as a result, why San Francisco will claim the Vince Lombardi Trophy:
1. The 49ers don't lose Super Bowls.
Plastered all over the 49ers' team hotel on Canal Street are banners that read "Quest for Six." Only the Pittsburgh Steelers have won more Super Bowls than the 49ers, and San Francisco can match Pittsburgh at a half-dozen titles on Sunday.
"Those guys set the bar pretty high for us guys who’ve come after them," San Francisco linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. "We’ve been hearing about it, crush for six, bring that ring back. So, the pressure’s on and this is the team that deals with pressure in a very good way."
The Ravens, by the way, are undefeated in Super Bowls as well -- but their 1-0 mark hardly measures up, even if Baltimore's last title (2000) came more recently than San Francisco's (1995).
Despite that, there's a mystique around the 49ers when they reach this stage, be it with Joe Montana, Steve Young or, now, Colin Kaepernick at the helm. This franchise expects to win when it reaches the NFL's big game, and history shows that there is reason for that San Francisco confidence.
2. The run game will be too much for Baltimore.
The Ravens' defense has enjoyed a resurgence in the playoffs, thanks in no small part to Ray Lewis' return to the lineup.
But one of the worst-kept secrets surrounding that Baltimore D in 2012 is that Lewis, when he's been on the field, has lost a step. That's no surprise considering Lewis is about to call it a career at age 37 -- even if the future Hall of Famer has racked up 44 tackles during Baltimore's playoff run.
For all his tackling ability and instincts, Lewis has been put back on his heels by offensive linemen at times this season. Even if he were 100 percent (and he's not, with a still-injured tricep), Lewis would have his hands full bringing down Gore, once Gore cleared the line of scrimmage; if the Ravens' D-line can't pin Gore in the backfield, they and Lewis will be in trouble.
There is more to the San Francisco running attack than just Gore up the gut, however. Kaepernick is a legitimate weapon out of the zone-read -- just ask Green Bay. And speedy LaMichael James gives the 49ers the ability to stretch the field sideline to sideline on the ground.
"Any time you have a quarterback that is as fast as a running back it adds a different thing," James said. "You can throw the ball, run the ball or do anything you want to do."
3. Joe Flacco is far worse when pressured -- and the 49ers love to bring pressure.
Most NFL quarterbacks see their numbers drop against blitzes or heavy pass rushes, and Flacco is no different. Per Pro Football Focus, Flacco's QB rating under pressure this season was 75.3, down more than a dozen points from his overall clip (87.7). He also completed just 50 percent of his passes when opposing defenses blitzed.
There are a multitude of reasons behind those drop-offs, but the biggest are there:
• Even as he continues to improve as a quarterback, Flacco still does not have a great "internal clock" when he drops back -- he took 35 sacks this season (tied for eighth-most in the NFL).
• More pressure from the D means that Baltimore has to use Ray Rice (or Bernard Pierce) for blocking help, eliminating a key receiving weapon.
• Baltimore prefers to stretch the field vertically, and pressure on Flacco does not leave the Ravens' receivers enough time to get open downfield.
The 49ers love to bring the heat, be it off the edges with Aldon Smith or Ahmad Brooks, or from the interior with NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. If that pass rush flusters Flacco, the Ravens' offense could be in for a long night.
4. Vernon Davis will be a nightmare for Baltimore.
In trying to shut down the zone-read and keep Kaepernick in the pocket, the Atlanta Falcons often forgot about Davis during the NFC championship game. As a result, Davis hauled in five passes for 106 yards and a touchdown and often found himself with huge patches of open field.
It remains to be seen how the Ravens will try to better handle Davis this week -- though the smart money is on Bernard Pollard, who covered Aaron Hernandez for most of the AFC title game, as Hernandez made eight catches for 93 yards.
Physically, Pollard may be the best option for Baltimore. But that's not to say he would have a favorable matchup against Davis, still one of the best tight ends in the league.
"He does it all. He’s a beast," said Baltimore safety Ed Reed of Davis. "He’s one of those guys that you all say has 'it.' He catches touchdowns, he’s blocking. I’m surprised they haven’t ran him yet, handing him the ball, but he’s somebody you really have to know where he is at all times and be mindful of what he’s doing, because they give him the ball, for one. You have to give him the ball.
"Why wouldn’t you? But whoever is covering him, whether it’s me, [safety] Bernard [Pollard], or anybody on our team covering him, you have to be really mindful of where he’s at."
5. That Kaepernick guy ...
Baltimore's pass rushers -- Paul Kruger, in particular -- have delivered disruptive performances throughout this playoff run. There is a difference between facing the likes of Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, however, and running into Colin Kaepernick.
Manning and Brady, especially, present incredible challenges in the passing game. Yet, on the flip side, they might be the two least mobile starting quarterbacks in the NFL right now. Because of that, Ravens such as Terrell Suggs, Kruger and Courtney Upshaw could pin their ears back on passing downs and get after the quarterback.
A similar approach against Kaepernick could be deadly, since the San Francisco QB not only will keep plays alive with his feet, but also will step up through gaps created by overaggressive rushers.
"You look at Robert Griffin III, you look at Kaepernick and they’re very special talents," Baltimore safety Bernard Pollard said. "They’re guys who can kill you with both their arm and their legs."
And that's the scariest part of scouting Kaepernick: For as tricky as the zone-read is and as dangerous as Kaepernick is once he breaks contain, he's also coming off a game in which he completed 76 percent of his passes. There may not be a way to totally stop him, when he's in the groove he's found.