1 Expect the unexpected from these Niners
The scariest thing about the 49ers' offense heading into Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans? It's too hard to pinpoint just one. They can play like the Michael Vick Falcons, or they can play like the Bart Starr Packers—either way is fine with them. They've got this unselfish thing down pretty good, thanks to an unlikely pair of selfless players: Randy Moss and Alex Smith. And, contrary to popular Bay Area belief, Colin Kaepernick's most dangerous trait is not his running ability. It's his arm.
We'll get to those terrors in due time. But first, come onto the field at the Georgia Dome on Sunday, following the first play of the second quarter of the NFC Championship Game: Atlanta 17, San Francisco 0.
Bill Cowher used to say that a home crowd could influence a game for the first 10 or 15 minutes; after that the fans will have yelled themselves out and you just get down to football. But the Falcons put one of those noise meters in the crowd on Sunday, and early in the second quarter it was still hovering around 110 decibels, like standing next to a jet engine on the runway. So much for what 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman had told his players last week, "Don't worry. That crowd will die out."
January 28, 2013
With the score dispelling that notion, Roman regrouped and tried something new. "No football game is won in the first quarter," he told his players. "No game is lost in the first quarter." Elsewhere on the sideline, quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst tried to keep the mood light with Kaepernick, harking back to the passer's college days at Nevada. "You've been in a few games like this," Chryst said.
"Just another WAC game," Kaepernick replied, grinning.
Not exactly. In the Western Athletic Conference, Kaepernick might have started the next drive with a bomb, two scrambles and a couple rollouts. All week the Niners had listened as Falcons players and coaches obsessed over Kaepernick's record 181-yard rushing day in the divisional-round rout of the Packers. Surely now, after the Niners had not called a single Kaepernick run in the first quarter, here would come the unveiling.
Instead, three yards and a cloud of FieldTurf. Frank Gore behind right guard Alex Boone for nine yards. Gore burrowing past Boone for one more and a first down. Guards Daniel Kilgore and Leonard Davis reporting eligible as sixth and seventh offensive linemen, and Gore kicking outside right tackle Anthony Davis, behind pulling guard Mike Iupati, for three. Gore around left end for seven. Another first down ... and suddenly it's quieter.
Seven plays later changeup back LaMichael James blasted off right tackle and zoomed 15 yards for a TD. Now it was 17--7, and we had a game.
America had to be thinking, Where are the most famous legs in the Bay Area since Rickey Henderson? When's Roman going to go all Mad Scrambler on Atlanta?
"Sometimes as a play-caller," the unassuming Roman said afterward in the bowels of the stadium, "the intent is to deceive."
Kaepernick the pocket guy lasted until the 38th minute, when he had his only designed run of the day, a zone read option around right end on which he was buried for a two-yard loss by linebacker Akeem Dent. He had one other run, a scramble for 23 yards when forced from the pocket in the second quarter. Two rushes, 21 yards— that was it for the Colin Kaepernick Magic Show the nation had tuned in to witness.
"We're not very much into stats around here," Roman said with a smile. "We play reality football. We don't play fantasy football."
In the end it was Kaepernick's right arm, not his legs, that would prove vital in a 28--24 victory. The production of the sometimes-mothballed Gore and tight end Vernon Davis (196 yards and three touchdowns combined) helped the Niners reach their first Super Bowl since Steve Young dismantled the Chargers 18 years ago, and there was already big talk on Sunday before the team left Atlanta. "The dynasty will prevail," said owner Denise DeBartolo York, sister of former owner Eddie DeBartolo, who was an emotional locker room visitor following the game. The dynasty is 5--0 in Super Bowls, the best record of any team in the history of NFL championship games. Now Ray Lewis may have something to say about that in New Orleans.
If you're Lewis, or if you're Baltimore defensive coordinator Dean Pees producing a game plan to combat Kaepernick, you have to wonder which 49ers offense you'll see on Super Sunday. Kaepernick ran 13 times out of the zone read against Green Bay in his record-setting rushing day two weeks ago—and just once in Atlanta. But it's not that easy. On any given play Kaepernick has the freedom at the line to call a play-action fake to Gore or James and throw it, hand off to one of them, or run around end. Entering the Falcons game, Roman knew he wasn't going to call many designed quarterback runs, but he never knows exactly how often Kaepernick will choose on his own to run, because if the defense gives him a look that's run-favorable, he'll take it.
The unsung element is Kaepernick's arm strength and downfield accuracy. "People don't understand what makes Colin good," Roman says. "It's his arm. All week, everybody's talking about how great he ran against Green Bay, but the keys to those runs were the throws he made. Without those, [opponents] devote a lot more to stopping the run."
On Sunday, the Falcons were successful early on, getting more physical than they'd previously been. But that played into Roman's chess game, exposing his opponent's approach at the onset. "Give [Falcons defensive coordinator] Mike Nolan credit," says Roman, who was Andrew Luck's offensive coordinator at Stanford for two seasons before moving to the 49ers with Jim Harbaugh. "I wanted to create the ultimate conflict for them."
Once he had a look, Roman knew that Kaepernick would make the right adjustments to the defense he saw. "Colin is pretty structured and very trustworthy," says Roman. "He reminds me of [Luck]. If the defense does something we haven't prepared for, he just says, 'O.K., now I've seen that. I got it.'"
It helps that Gore and Davis, once and future stars, aren't complaining about the supporting-actor roles they're often left playing. (Gore is still a force, but Davis's five catches on Sunday marked his first game in two months with more than two receptions.) "It's about us, not me," says Davis.
One of the reasons for that camaraderie, several players say, is the selflessness displayed this season by players like Kaepernick, Smith and Moss. When Smith went 18 of 19 in a win over Arizona in Week 8, Chryst says Kaepernick showed up at 6 a.m. the next morning to work out; and when Kaepernick led the playoff win over Green Bay, Smith (who was leading the league in QB rating when he was benched in November) was in the building early the next morning, advising his successor. "They legitimately help each other," says Chryst. "It's no act."
Moss's time on the field has increased—he played 36 snaps on Sunday, more than in any game before Week 15, and he caught three passes—but not because he mouthed off about his reps. "Randy's been ridiculously good," says Roman. "His leadership has been off the charts. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he doesn't care about anything but winning, every day." Moss's influence on the game plan, Roman says, has been nothing but positive: He will often provide a tip or two after studying an opponent's tape. Last week, for instance, he told Roman that if the Falcons played a certain defensive coverage, the intermediate part of the field opposite receiver Michael Crabtree would be open. On the first snap of the second half the Niners got that coverage, and Moss caught a pass on an intermediate comeback, turning it into a 21-yard gain.
Says Davis, who last season saw his Niners come within two special teams turnovers of reaching the Super Bowl, "Randy's a vital piece that we might have missed last year."
So it's pick-your-poison time for Baltimore. And when you pick it, expect the unexpected. Kaepernick's rushing attempts the last three games: three, 16, two. Davis's targets the last four weeks: one, two, five, six.
The Ravens will be thrilled that they've been afforded two weeks to study this unorthodox offense and the tendencies of its changeup-throwing coordinator. They'll need it.
2 A born-again Ravens D will contest every yard
It will be a battle of brothers, yes. But Super Bowl XLVII will also pit one team's Bible verses against the other's. The psalms tattooed on the sculpted arms of Colin Kaepernick will clash with whatever scripture Ray Lewis happens to be declaiming—loudly, you'd expect—at any given moment in New Orleans next week.
After a minute or two prostrating himself on the turf, thanking the Almighty for Baltimore's 28--13 AFC Championship Game victory over the Patriots on Sunday, Lewis rose and admitted that his feelings had been hurt. A majority of Americans could not tell you that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is leaving office this week, but they're acutely aware of the fact that this, Lewis's 17th NFL season, will be his last. With that in mind, a Boston radio station had paid for a billboard counting down the days, hours and minutes until Ray's Retirement Party, predicting that his career would end at Gillette Stadium on Sunday night. The ancient warrior was not amused, responding with a game-high 14 tackles and this verse from the Book of Isaiah, shared with teammates before kickoff: No weapon forged against you will prevail.
The same can now be said of snarky billboards.
It's not a great idea to give this Ravens team any extra fuel. Galvanized by hardships earlier in the season and rallying around spiritual leader Lewis, they are headed to the Big Easy brimming with the confidence that comes from confounding the doubters three weeks in a row. After stumbling into the playoffs on the heels of four losses in their final five games, John Harbaugh's club has pulled an abrupt U-turn. It hasn't been painless. A considerate, decent man, Harbaugh found it necessary to fire his offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, on Dec. 10. Under his replacement, Jim Caldwell, the offense has roared to life in the postseason. Fifth-year quarterback Joe Flacco outplayed future Hall of Famers Peyton Manning and Tom Brady on the road in consecutive games, and now Flacco has more postseason road wins than any other QB in history. With eight touchdowns and no interceptions, his passer rating in Baltimore's three playoff victories this month is 114.7, 27 points higher than his regular-season number.
No less critical to Baltimore's unlikely playoff run has been the resurgence of the defense. With Lewis (torn triceps), rush end Terrell Suggs (Achilles, biceps) and tackle Haloti Ngata (sprained knee) all returning to good health for January, the Ravens have arrested and reversed their December decline.
Yes, the Patriots led the NFL in scoring (557 points) and yards per game (427.9). But Brady is seldom himself against the Ravens, who keep him off balance by constantly changing coverages—sometimes as many as eight different looks in a single drive. Brady so excels at identifying coverages "based on your front," says safety James Ihedigbo, "that you always gotta move things, change things, keep rolling the dice."
Brady is going to win some of those rolls. Dissecting Baltimore's defense with short passes and handoffs up the middle to tailback Stevan Ridley, he led New England to scoring drives on its final two possessions of the first half—a touchdown, then a field goal. And then ... bubkes.
Baltimore's most important victory of the season was also its most bipolar. After floundering in the first half, Flacco led the Ravens on three straight second-half TD drives, and the defense turned in its most impressive 30 minutes of the season, shutting out the NFL's most explosive offense. In the second half Brady threw a pair of interceptions, both off tipped balls. What was the difference? It wasn't a matter of adjustments at halftime, said Harbaugh: "We calmed down a little bit. We talked to the guys and told them it was going to be about playing persistent, patient and poised."
By refusing to be suckered by double moves, by having the discipline to keep everything in front of them, the Ravens yielded zero big plays. The flip side is they gave up numerous medium and short-range completions. But they made Patriots receivers pay for those gains. "They got nothing easy," said Harbaugh. "We made them earn their eight yards, earn their 10 yards—make a tight throw, make a tight catch, then take a big hit."
The most monstrous of those was meted out by strong safety Bernard Pollard, who typifies the members of this defense: He is gracious, well-spoken, deeply devout and highly adept at bringing the wood. On a handoff to Ridley early in the fourth quarter, Pollard came down from his safety's spot like a descending pile driver. His helmet-to-helmet collision knocked Ridley out and resulted in a fumble that Flacco quickly transformed into Baltimore's final touchdown. "It was just a tackle," said Pollard with a shrug after the game. "I hope he's O.K."
Such graciousness was in stark contrast to the anger at Brady late in the first half. On a three-yard scramble, Brady slid, saw Reed bearing down on him, then lifted a leg, like Ty Cobb taking out a shortstop. Brady apologized later in the game, as he should have. It was an uncharacteristically dirty play, but one that reflected the piquancy of this white-hot rivalry.
Also swept up in the rivalry was Suggs, who made reference to the Patriots as "arrogant f-----s" and couldn't restrain himself from boasting, after leaving the field, "We came, we saw, we conquered. Tell 'em to have fun at the Pro Bowl."
It will be difficult for the Ravens to work up a similar animosity for a team led by their coach's brother. San Francisco and Baltimore don't have a toxic history, and Niners fans aren't likely to give the Ravens much bulletin board—or billboard—material.
Still, the Ravens are sure to extract some umbrage from the fact that on Monday, Vegas installed their opponents as 4½ point favorites. And they'll keep rallying around Lewis. "I didn't want his last game to be played in Denver," said running back Ray Rice in the jubilant dressing room. "I didn't want his last game to be played in New England. Ray Lewis's last game will be played in New Orleans."
The retirement party has been postponed for a couple of weeks. Be sure to save the date.
3 San Fran is sweating a last-minute field goal try
From 1967 to 2000, in Super Bowls I through XXXV, only two games were decided by three points or fewer. And, save for on one occasion (cough—Norwood), a missed field goal had never cost any team a Lombardi Trophy. When kickers combined to go 3 for 6 in Super Bowl XII, for example, it was no big deal, seeing as the Cowboys beat the Broncos by 17.
But in the 12 years since, four final margins have been of three points or less, a trend that makes all the more scarier the seasonlong slump being suffered by 49ers kicker David Akers, a 14-year veteran who just last season set an NFL record with 44 made field goals.
In 2012 Akers led all kickers with 13 regular-season misses, including a league-high four in the fourth quarter or overtime. That spotty spell continued on Sunday in Atlanta when, with the 49ers trailing by three late in the third quarter, the 38-year-old pinged a 38-yarder off the left upright, the seriousness of the moment accentuated with a massive BONNNG, echoed, seemingly for effect, over the Georgia Dome sound system.
Two weeks earlier, before their first playoff game, the 49ers had flown in Billy Cundiff as protection (or motivation), but they released the veteran early last week. The plan at this point is to stay with Akers in the Super Bowl, a gamble that sends San Francisco fans' collective heart rate racing with anxiety.
Akers, for his part, is showing no signs of panic. "At one time I had the most consecutive field goals in playoff history," he coolly pointed out following Sunday's game, "so I'm going to take [the miss] with a grain of salt and say, 'Obviously I wish I made the field goal, and I'm glad it didn't end up costing us the game.'"
Those were precisely the stakes for Adam Vinatieri in 2002 and '04 when the Patriots won championships on his last-minute makes, but no kicker since then has found himself in that position. So if Super Bowl XLVII hinges on a San Francisco field goal attempt, which Akers should we expect—the one who nailed 19 postseason kicks in a row between '04 and '09, or the one who just two years ago with Philadelphia went 1 for 3 at home against Green Bay, the difference in a 21--16 wild-card loss?
For the 49ers, it might be a question best left unanswered.
4 Baltimore's run game is just now jelling, and that's a good thing
Ebullient following the Ravens' AFC Championship Game win, Ray Rice was basking in the glow of his first Super Bowl berth on Sunday—that is, until a member of Baltimore's p.r. staff interrupted a group interview in the visitors' locker room at Gillette Stadium to deliver the information the running back had requested: "Nineteen for forty-eight."
Rice was stung, as if he'd just lost the conference title game for the third time in his career. "That sucks," he said, loud enough to be heard above the celebratory din. The five-year veteran hung his head for the briefest of moments—New Orleans, after all!—but not everyone considered the stat line (19 carries, 48 yards) to be so demoralizing. At the locker to Rice's left, rookie running mate Bernard Pierce grinned widely enough that his beard appeared to grow. "Hey, I beat Ray," he told fullback Vonta Leach. "Nine for fifty-two."
If the two backs had been one, Sunday would've been a banner day for Baltimore's ground attack: 28 carries, 100 yards. The combined effort was largely overshadowed by the performances of quarterback Joe Flacco (240 yards passing, three TDs), receivers Torrey Smith (69 yards receiving) and Anquan Boldin (two of those TDs), and tight end Dennis Pitta (he had the other one), but balance—between the passing game and the rushing attack; and late in this season, between Rice and Pierce—has been the key to the Ravens' effectiveness. Over the last five games Rice has averaged 18 carries for 72 yards, Pierce 13 carries for 76 yards.
"No back takes the brunt of the work in this league anymore," says the 5' 8", 212-pound Rice, who had a two-yard TD scamper in the second quarter. "It's too physically demanding. When you have a guy like Bernard who can spell you, when you don't lose a beat in your offense...." You get the point. "We're a duo."
A third-round pick out of Temple, Pierce is barely the bigger back at 6 feet, 218 pounds, but his running style couldn't be more different. Unlike the juking Rice, Pierce delivers punishing hits, then churns. Of his 532 rushing yards this season, 375 came after initial contact. ("I'm not going to shy away," he says of taking on tacklers.) More tellingly, 285 of his total yards—more than half of them—came after Week 13.
Pierce didn't emerge as a real factor until QBs coach Jim Caldwell was promoted to offensive coordinator following Cam Cameron's firing on Dec. 10. A day earlier, in warmups before a 31--28 loss to the Redskins, Caldwell was facing away from the running backs, overseeing QB drills. "I could feel Bernard running behind me," Caldwell recalls. "I could feel it in the ground: Boom ... boom. You could sense the power in his stride."
Two weeks later, as Caldwell was settling into his new role in a Week 16 win over the Giants, Pierce carried the ball 14 times for 123 yards (including a 78-yard fourth-quarter dash after which he said, "I realized I wasn't as in shape as I thought I was"). He would prove to be the biggest offensive change of the Ravens' season. On Sunday, playing with a bruised right knee in the AFC title game, he made the best of his nine carries: two runs of 10-plus yards, and three first downs.
Pierce's spot service enabled Rice to remain fresh when needed most. On Sunday, with just over nine minutes to play in the third quarter and Baltimore trailing by six, Rice became lost among towering linemen on a screen. After getting knocked around three times, he finally made eye contact with Flacco—"That's how we communicate," he says—and hauled in a dump pass, then zipped past four defenders. The 15-yard gain moved the ball to the Patriots' 35-yard line, setting up the go-ahead TD six plays later.
In facing the 49ers' fourth-ranked run defense, with its six Pro Bowlers, Caldwell will look for creative ways to get Rice the ball in the open field. But that will rely on Pierce gashing at the line of scrimmage. Says Caldwell, "He's powerful; he's a tough guy to bring down. He just needed an opportunity."
5 Love hurts—nowhere more than in sports
In the Jan. 14 issue, SI senior writer Thomas Lake recounted his experience as a long-suffering Falcons fan. This is an epilogue:
Loud in here. Sound waves bouncing off the roof. Shrieking and bellowing and shouts of joy. They're reviewing that last touchdown. We see the replay on the big screen. Yes. Yes. Julio dragged that second foot. Falcons 17, 49ers 0. Three more quarters to the Super Bowl. If only we could speed up the clock.
Kaepernick is unshakable. A touchdown drive, and we punt, then another touchdown drive. Suddenly 17--14, with a nervous hush in the Dome. And then Matty Ice comes out firing. Hits Gonzalez over the middle, then Julio, then Gonzalez again. Touchdown. He dunks it over the crossbar. It's 24--14, and Ryan has just played the best half of his career, and maybe this lead will hold, and the crowd sounds like a Delta jet taking off at Hartsfield.
But there are dark forces in the universe, as real and significant as the axial tilt of the Earth. These forces keep wealth and power in the hands of the few. They are the reason the Celtics always eliminate the Hawks in the playoffs, and the Yankees beat the Braves, and the Niners have five Super Bowl titles while the Falcons have none. If the outcome is in doubt, the forces make sure the winner keeps winning. And if you're from Atlanta, you're up a creek. Unless you're playing Cleveland.
So: Niners score. Ryan throws a pick. Ryan fumbles. Niners score again to take a 28--24 lead. Ryan hurts his left shoulder. Bravely he leads the Falcons on one last drive. Fourth down in the red zone. Roddy gets knocked around. No flag. Niners swat down the pass. Falcons get the ball back, but Ryan is too hurt to throw a real Hail Mary. Game over.
The door to the Super Bowl was as wide open as it will ever be, and the dark forces slammed it shut. We walk outside. Moon rising in a violet sky. Lights burning in the skyscrapers on Peachtree Street. We are done with football for good. Forever. For at least eight months.
6 College fans will see something familiar
When chalkboard tinkering pays off and new schemes prove effective in college football, these ideas tend to sweep through the sport, adapted by coaches looking for new ways to narrow or widen canyonesque talent gaps. But these schemes rarely make the jump to the NFL. Why? They won't work, play-it-safe NFL coaches spout in unison. You can't rely on trickery. NFL defenders are just too athletic.
But 2012 was different. Patriots personnel met with Oregon's Chip Kelly (who has since become the Philadelphia Eagles' Chip Kelly) and then toyed with their own offensive tempo; the Redskins and the Seahawks ran zone read with RG3 and Russell Wilson, respectively. And now the NFL's greatest endorsement of collegiate innovation: In Super Bowl XLVII the 49ers are likely to run one college creation, the zone read, out of another campus-born alignment, the Pistol.
Think about that. A style of running concocted at D-II Glenville (W.Va.) State and curated in the Big East will be operated out of a formation developed in the WAC, and on the grandest stage in all of football. The Pistol, invented in 2005 by Nevada coach Chris Ault, is a shallower version of the shotgun that puts a tailback directly behind his quarterback. The zone read (or read option, or zone read option), discovered by accident at Glenville State in the early 1990s when Jed Drenning turned a bobbled snap into a huge gain, requires the QB to place the ball on the belly of the tailback. At this moment, called the mesh point, the QB reads the last defender on the line, who is left unblocked by design. If he is holding his ground, the QB lets the tailback take the ball. But if the defender pinches in toward the tailback, he pulls the ball out and scrambles toward the area the defender vacated.
This explains the bewildered look on the face of Packers linebacker Erik Walden as he gesticulated wildly on the sideline, trying to explain how he lost Colin Kaepernick on a 56-yard TD run that blasted the San Francisco--Green Bay divisional playoff game wide open. The 49ers had called a zone read play (with LaMichael James, who learned the scheme at Oregon, as the "handoff option") out of the Pistol, and Walden was the last defender on the line.
"If you've got a guy like Kaepernick ... you can run [zone read] four or five times a game—potentially really big plays that a defense has to get ready for," says Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, the former Glenville State coach who turned the zone read into the cornerstone of his offense. But, he adds, "you probably won't major in it in the NFL." As Auburn proved when shutting down Heisman Trophy--winner Tim Tebow and Florida in 2007, smashing the QB on every read play—even when he doesn't keep the ball—eventually saps his will to run. In the pros it will likely sap a coach's will to expose his most important player.
Health risks aside, collegiate concepts along the lines of the zone read are working in the NFL because QBs are entering the league with deeper skill sets. More guys like Kaepernick are on the way. Perhaps some enterprising NFL coach will someday draft Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and bring a bit of Kevin Sumlin's modified Air Raid to the next level.
The possibilities are endless. The game is better for it; you'll see on Sunday.
7 The HarBowl will live up to the hype
A few years ago Baltimore fans spotted a coach clad in Ravens gear in an airport, and shouted: "Coach Harbaugh!" They were right: It was a Coach Harbaugh, just not the one they thought. Jim, then with Stanford, was wearing the colors of his brother John's team.
And visitors to the Ravens' facility see a sign outside John's office that reads: RAVENS FOOTBALL IS HUSTLE. CONSTANT HUSTLE. HUSTLING ALL THE TIME. They would think that was John's sign, and it was. But he copied the motto from Jim. "Straight from the West Coast, baby!" John once told SI. "To me, that's his personality right there."
Super Bowl story lines tend to overwhelm the game itself. The difference with the HarBowl is that, this time, the story line is worthy. Two brothers, who were born 15 months apart and spent much of their childhoods sharing a room, will be coaching against one another on the biggest stage in American sports.
Adding to the fun: Their sister, Joani, is married to Indiana men's basketball coach Tom Crean, who could win the NCAA title this April. If there were a fourth Harbaugh sibling, the family would probably hoist the Stanley Cup.
The Harbaughs have turned the classic coaching story on its head: While many succeed at the expense of family, the Harbaughs succeed because of it. Their dad, Jack, was a longtime college coach who took his boys to the office whenever he could. Jack once told Jim, who was not yet 10, that he might resign his assistant position at Iowa because the head coach, Frank Lauterbur, did not want Jim coming to practice. Jim would remember his father saying, "If they don't want you there, then this isn't a place I want to be."
"I was like, 'Dad, you can't quit your job. We've got the season coming up,'" Jim says. "I just remember the feeling: Wow, my dad, he loves me so much, he was going to leave his job. That's my dad. He's my hero."
Jim, 49, and John, 50, both cite their father as their most important coaching role model, and they have tried to copy him in so many ways. But as the story line unfolds, the media will likely focus on the differences between the two.
John could probably count his enemies on one hand and have enough fingers left over to grip a football. Jim is famous for getting into public disputes with other coaches, most notably Pete Carroll (in both college and the NFL) and the Lions' Jim Schwartz—over postgame handshakes, of all things.
John is unfailingly polite. Jim is notoriously curt with the media, possibly because his mouth has gotten him into so many little tiffs over the years. But as John has often said, and will likely repeat in the days ahead, "We're more alike than we are different."
Both are feisty competitors who revel in seeing themselves as underdogs even when they aren't. They share strategies (not this week, of course) and gleefully borrow each other's motivational ploys. It is quite possible that the Ravens and the 49ers will hear versions of the same speech before the kickoff in New Orleans.
The biggest difference between the Harbaugh brothers is in their respective journeys. Jim quarterbacked Michigan to a Rose Bowl berth and spent 14 seasons playing in the NFL, which fed his sense that he should challenge anybody in front of him. John, by comparison, never made it big as a player (he was a defensive back at Miami of Ohio), and thus he is more familiar with how frustration and failure can feel.
They arrived at this point because they do their jobs as well as anyone in the league. John has won at least one playoff game in each of his five seasons with the Ravens, which is unprecedented. Jim took Stanford football from life support to the Orange Bowl, then turned around the 49ers instantly, reaching the NFC title game in his first season and the Super Bowl in his second.
This year Jim made the bold and controversial decision to bench Alex Smith, the quarterback in last year's title game, in favor of dynamic young Colin Kaepernick. John made an even more painful decision: Following a 31--28 overtime loss to the Redskins on Dec. 9, he fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, a close Harbaugh family ally for almost three decades.
The decisions revealed two brothers willing to make tough choices. The ensuing success has made those choices seem wise. Now the championship of the NFL will likely turn on a smart decision by a Harbaugh. We just don't know which one.
8 Niners fans are just like the rest of us
Last weekend, as the 49ers eked out a win over the Falcons, I was doing what most Bay Area residents do on a Sunday: riding a cable car with my gay, vegan friends. We were sporting ironic mustaches and drinking sustainably sourced microbrews. It's hard to remember much more, on account of all the weed we smoked. Anyway, word filtered back that Colin Kaepernick had played admirably for the local professional football team, which made us happy—even if his tattoos are a little Bible-y for us. (We prefer our ink agnostic and/or esoteric.) To celebrate, we considered storming a local coffee shop.
Truth is, though, we're a bit tired of celebrating here in the Bay Area. You know, what with the Giants winning the World Series, the A's making that unreal late-season run, the climate being temperate for the 7,457th day in a row, Mitt Romney losing the election. Not to mention the Warriors sitting in second place in the Pacific Division, the equivalent of first place for any other NBA franchise. In these parts, we're not good at wallowing—we possess none of the capacity for bleak despondency of, say, a landlocked hellhole like Philadelphia. We sure are good at being smug though.
Or so the stereotype goes. People think of Niners fans and imagine holier-than-thou liberals, Silicon Valley dweebs in North Face fleeces, aging hippies with thinning gray locks and South Bay thugs throwing haymakers. And they're right, we are all these things. But we're also none of them. We are one of the most diverse, passionate, apathetic, weird, intellectual, haughty, angry, genial fan bases imaginable. And now we get to care about a Super Bowl again.
It's been a while since that last happened—at least by local standards. After all, Niners modern history began only 30-odd years ago, in 1981, when a man reached up into the fog and came down with a football. From there, Joe and Dwight begat Joe and Jerry, who begat Steve and Jerry. Together they begat a whole mess of championship rings, five in all.
And then: the dark years. For a decade plus, the drought continued; a parade of buffoons: Dennis Erickson, Norv Turner and Mike Singletary, pants around his ankles. Gone was the glory, replaced by ineptitude and salary-cap purges.
When a supposed savior arrived from down the road in Palo Alto, he promised a new era. We just hoped for Luck. Then, amazingly, this spittle-spewing madman delivered, driving a herd of linebackers across the plains of the NFC. Now, Jim Harbaugh and his boys—our boys—are in the Super Bowl.
So next Sunday we'll gather in dive bars and in tiny apartments across the Mission district, places where twentysomething hipsters like Sam Quintana dwell. A handlebar-mustache-bearing 23-year-old who bikes everywhere and who beatboxes and freestyles on the side, Quintana comes out of the plaid closet once a week to defy all that hipsterism stands for and root for the 49ers, his lifelong team. Says Quintana, who plans to wear his white Super Bowl XXIX snapback cap and gold Starter jacket for the big game, "Everyone shows their appreciation differently."
We'll sweat it out as Seth Peckler does, alongside our adopted families. Eight Sundays a year for the last 23 seasons, Peckler and a group of 27 season-ticket holders of all ages and backgrounds have tailgated at Candlestick, eating lamb and cioppino, discussing for hours the deficiencies of various past offensive coordinators. Unable to travel to New Orleans, many will blow off their actual families to gather with their Sunday ones.
We'll crowd the railing at Hi Tops, the city's first official gay sports bar, where patrons sport supertight T-shirts, drink Big Unit cocktails and roar "Kill him! Kill him!" whenever Aldon Smith gets near the opposing QB.
We'll be spread across the country, a population of red-and-gold expats, perhaps none of us as invested as Eric Heitmann. He played eight seasons on San Francisco's offensive line, starting all but five games—but they were the wrong seasons. Drafted in 2002, the final playoff year of the Steve Mariucci era, Heitmann was released in July 2011, a month before Harbaugh coached his first game. He played for one of the most successful franchises in NFL history, and all he did was lose. Now 32 and out of football, Heitmann watches in his suburban Houston living room, pacing "like a nervous parent," rewinding games to watch the O-line. "I'm incredibly proud of my friends on the team," he says, "but I'm one of you guys now."
One of us—a group that includes those telling tall tales at the Dust Bowl Brewery in Turlock, Kaepernick's hometown in the Central Valley; a group that includes those north of the bridge, in the land of Bimmers and Jags and impossibly fit moms, where the 49ers' Booster Club of Marin has been meeting since 1980; a group that includes the intellectuals clandestinely sipping pints of Pliny the Elder IPA at Bobby G's in Berkeley, watching a sport often derided as base and barbaric.
And if the Niners win it all, we'll trade in our fake Brian Wilson beards for Kaepernick goatees. We'll roar and get drunk and dance in the streets and make totally unironic comments that we'll regret in the morning about how awesome it all is. And some of us—a number of whom might be gay, or vegan, or gay and vegan—might even ride on top of a cable car.
9 Hot streak be damned, Joe Flacco can be stopped
...So thinks one defensive coordinator who game-planned against Baltimore this season:
"You have to make Flacco beat you. He's sporadic. That throw against Denver at the end of regulation two weeks ago? That should have been intercepted. He's an up-and-down guy if you hit him, and I think you can confuse him. He's not real sharp when it comes to finding reads. He prefers the free-access throws, where D-backs give receivers a release at the line. That's why he prefers facing zone coverage.
"If Joe doesn't see what he wants, he checks down a majority of the time to Ray Rice. But Rice is not a good pass protector, and there are things you can do with pressure to force him to stay in the backfield. If Ray gets the ball, his strength is his cut-back ability. Get him to bounce to the perimeter; he's not as good outside.
"When Flacco throws elsewhere, you've got to pay special attention to Torrey Smith, who's got great breakaway speed. He's not very good against press coverage, especially if you're pressing him from outside in. Most of the balls he'll beat you with are free releases to the outside.
"And Anquan Boldin? He's just a possession-route guy. Give him free release and he can make some plays using his body, but if you bump-and-run him, he's not nearly as efficient.
"Again though, the key is Flacco. You have to make him beat you."
10 And the Lombardi goes to ...
There's been a sea change between Baltimore's defense in the regular season and the playoffs. From September through December the unit was on the field for 65.6 snaps per game, nearly the league average, and gave up 21.5 points per game. In its three games in January, Baltimore's D has been on the field for a sky-high 86 snaps per game but given up just 14.3 points on average. So what's up? The run D has tightened, with 345-pound noseman Ma'ake Kemoeatu proving to be a quality plugger in 84 postseason snaps. Cornerback Corey Graham, who had two picks in the win at Denver, is the instinctive coverman the Ravens had been missing since Lardarius Webb blew out a knee in October. Terrell Suggs has rushed the passer well in spurts after returning from a right Achilles tear in October. And Ray Lewis, while not the linebacker he was, is the leader the defense lacked in the middle while he was out for 10 games with a torn right triceps.
The Flacco--Kaepernick duel—a pocket guy with a good deep arm versus a mobile guy with a laser—will be worth the price of admission. For me, it comes down to Flacco making plays both in the middle of the field with Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin, and on the edges with speed men Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones.
This will be the first of several Super Bowl trips for Kaepernick. He's the wild card that makes this game so unpredictable. But I've doubted Flacco one too many times this winter, and I won't make that mistake a third time.
The Pick: Ravens 27, Niners 23
For news on the 30 teams that won't be playing in Super Bowl XLVII, including Chris Burke's ranking of the top 40 college prospects and Don Banks's first NFL mock draft, visit SI.com/mag
An NFL defensive coordinator who game-planned against the 49ers earlier this season imagines how he'd address the zone read:
"You have to be careful about chasing ghosts. Against Green Bay, only four of San Francisco's runs in the first half were true zone read option plays in which the QB was reading the defense and deciding what to do. Usually when the 49ers show you that formation, it's predetermined where the ball is going. They want you to spend 90% of your thought process defending that.
"When they do run it, it creates an extra gap, so someone has to take care of two gaps. The Number 1 thing most teams do is to ask, Do we have to stop the running back? You can't let Frank Gore run wild on you. You have to find a way to stop him in your two-deep or three-deep coverages; you cannot put nine guys in the box and play man coverage on the outside. I would play some form of single-high (one safety deep) coverage that would allow me to match up on the outside with their receivers, match up with their tight end (because Vernon Davis is still a high priority), and still be able to stop the run."
Is it time to reconsider who's really the current first family of football? (Sorry, Rex and Rob—the Ryans don't even qualify for second place)