Who will have the advantage in Sunday's Super Bowl? USA TODAY Sports breaks down the Baltimore Ravens-San Francisco 49ers matchup from every angle:
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
It's all about the offensive line. When Joe Flacco struggled late in the regular season, it wasn't because he was a non-elite quarterback incapable of making big throws. It was because he was under constant pressure. No quarterback can be effective that way. (See Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLII.) Has Flacco (51-for-93 for 853 yards, eight touchdowns and zero interceptions in the postseason) suddenly become a wiser, more effective quarterback with a stronger arm? Of course not. The guys blocking for him have suddenly become a much more stout line, though. Flacco has been sacked four times in his last four complete games. The 49ers will need a huge game from Aldon Smith, who hasn't had a sack since Week 14. The 49ers play too much man coverage to not produce pressure on the quarterback. Much as they talk up their ability to cover guys one-on-one, this is the NFL and somebody is going to get open. The key will be getting to Flacco enough before he can find those guys.
VIDEO: Super Bowl analysis from USA TODAY Sports' NFL team
The USA TODAY Sports NFL panel discusses who's got the edge in Super Bowl XLVII.
WHEN 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
Before the NFC Championship Game, Atlanta Falcons defenders talked about trusting their pre-snap reads. They felt the Niners would tip their hand on plays based on formations, and they weren't the first defense to believe as much. The problem is Colin Kaepernick serves as a dual threat that's easier to think about stopping while watching on film than he is to actually stop while seeing him live. There were far too many flat-footed defenders on the Falcons' defense late in the game, namely on Frank Gore's game-winning touchdown when Kaepernick looked like he might keep the ball and on plenty of play-action fakes that allowed receivers and tight ends to run wide open through the secondary. That can't happen for the Ravens. What Ray Lewis lacks in physical ability at this point in his career, he makes up for with mental awareness. He has to make sure the pre-snap reads are perfect for the linebackers and defensive backs to play fast enough.
Ravens kick returner Jacoby Jones said the other day it would be wise if the Niners kept the ball away from him. "If I were them, I wouldn't kick it to me. Not at all," he said. "Not talking trash. But I wouldn't do it." That would probably be wise, if they can make it happen. Jones led the league with an average of 30.7 yards per kick return; the 49ers gave up the second-most yards per return in the NFL during the regular season (26.9). And who says the kickoff doesn't mean much anymore? Of the teams with the 10 highest averages per return allowed, only two made the playoffs.
Can Niners kicker David Akers keep it away from Jones? In his last two games in a dome, he had nine touchbacks in 10 kickoffs. But in his first two games in a dome this season, including one in the Superdome, he was 2-for-10. Akers has struggled and, even worse, has spent two weeks answering questions about those struggles. "Where's the horse?" Akers said during his final media session of Super Bowl week. "Because we've been beating it a lot." If he doesn't play well Sunday, he could be a big reason the 49ers get beat.
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USA TODAY Sports' Robert Klemko and Mike Garafolo break down the hidden gems that could emerge as heroes in Super Bowl XLVII.
49ers TE Delanie Walker: He doesn't make a lot of catches, but when he does, he makes them count. He averaged 16.4 yards per reception in the regular season and has two catches for 37 yards in the playoffs. Niners coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman are excellent offensive minds who can create space for their guys . They did it extremely well in getting starting TE Vernon Davis open over the middle on a play-action pass in the NFC Championship Game. Expect the Ravens to adjust to look for that one, and expect Harbaugh and Roman to draw up some creative looks to get Walker in space. He could be a guy who makes an unexpected game-breaking play. We're thinking a vertical route up the sideline against a Ravens linebacker or safety. Look for it.
Ravens LB Paul Kruger: He had a huge game in the Wild Card victory vs. the Indianapolis Colts with 2½ sacks and a forced fumble. Since then, he's been stout but hasn't had many impact plays. Now would be the time to rediscover that magic he had a few weeks back, especially since Kaepernick has protected the ball rather well since fumbling a wet football four times on snaps against the New England Patriots. Kruger had a nice strip of the Colts' Andrew Luck while coming off the edge on a power rush. The Ravens will need a play like that once Kaepernick and the Niners' offense gets rolling – because you know, at some point, they will. So in addition to providing a solid edge on read-option runs his way, Kruger should be looking to jar the ball loose when possible.
Follow Mike Garafolo on Twitter @mikegarafolo
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