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Gambling Harbaughs turned up aces

The SportsXchange

Baltimore and San Francisco were trendy picks over the summer to represent their conferences in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.

And why not? Both franchises were coming off runs to the conference championships last season that ended in heartbreaking fashion - the Ravens on a botched field goal and the 49ers on a muffed punt. Both teams had veteran-laden units on both sides of the ball and vowed to finish what they started in 2011.

It wouldn't be easy, but there was abundant information across the board to comfortably predict a "HarBowl" showdown in the Big Easy.

Say what you will about the Harbaugh brothers, but neither is afraid to blow up a "good" thing and gamble on greatness. It was a massive roll of the dice by each that turned up aces and put the 49ers and Ravens on due course for New Orleans.

Baltimore's season started innocuously enough. Quarterback Joe Flacco was expected by many to take the proverbial next step in his fifth season, and the Ravens averaged 30.3 points per game while opening 3-1 in September.

They were off to an AFC North lead that would never be seriously challenged. But along the way, that high octane offense started to chug along. Nine points in a narrow win at Kansas City, 13 in a loss at Houston. A three-game stretch where Baltimore averaged 16.3 points.

It was rollercoaster head coach Jim Harbaugh had seen too often over the previous four years. Along with a defense spiraling downhill following the Oct. 14 torn right triceps by Ray Lewis coupled with a spate of other injuries, and Harbaugh felt he had to make a drastic move.

That came with the firing of offensive coordinator and good friend Cam Cameron after a Week 14 victory at Washington.

The move came as a surprise so late in the season - and with plenty of second-guessers. But after a one-game transition period, Flacco and new play-caller Jim Caldwell have been in lockstep ever since. Flacco threw for 309 yards in Week 16, but Caldwell took his own risk entering the postseason by switching three spots along the offensive line.

The result? Flacco has completed 51 of 93 passes for 853 yards, eight touchdowns and zero interceptions in three playoff games - improving his completion percentage each week. He's now the only quarterback in NFL history to go to the playoffs in each of his first five seasons - and win at least one game each time. His six road wins is already an NFL career postseason record.

"He's a great quarterback," wide receiver Anquan Boldin said after the Ravens dispatched of the Patriots, 28-13, in the AFC Championship Game. "I don't know why people keep doubting him because the bigger the situation, the bigger he plays."

The stage doesn't get bigger than the Super Bowl, and Flacco has an opportunity to place an indelible stamp on his claim to being among the NFL's elite quarterbacks. The 49ers gave up 396 passing yards and three touchdowns to Atlanta's Matt Ryan in the NFC Championship Game, as the secondary continues to be exposed when the pass rush doesn't get home.

Lest we forget, this is a San Francisco defense that finished second in the NFL during the regular season, allowing an average of 17.1 points per game. The 49ers were third in yards allowed, fourth against the pass and fourth in defending the run.

They play downhill and they hit hard.

Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith will have two weeks between games to strengthen his own elbow/triceps injury. He has been far from dominant during the first two postseason games, and it has had a direct impact on outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who doesn't have a sack over his past five games without Justin helping to pave rushing lanes.

The 49ers did make defensive adjustments in the second half in Atlanta, and are confident they'll play better from the outset in New Orleans.

"It's all about believing in who's on your team," Aldon Smith said. "We believe in each other and know what we're capable of and know our goals. Everybody's on the same page."

That page was tested when 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh made the controversial decision to go with second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick over steady veteran Alex Smith in Week 12.

Smith was deemed healthy following a one-game absence to recover from a concussion. But in that game, Kaepernick tore apart the vaunted Bears defense in Chicago on "Monday Night Football."

Many thought the 49ers could ride their strong defense and power ground game to Super Bowl XLVII, but "steady" isn't in Jim Harbaugh's lexicon. He saw the 49ers mired in a win-win-lose cycle that lasted the entire regular season. He also saw the potential for greatness in Kaepernick; the question was, when would that star power emerge?

If Kaepernick wasn't ready, the 49ers' Super Bowl contender could easily implode.

Not one to stop and ask the opinion of his critics, Harbaugh made the bold move to sit a healthy Smith in favor of Kaepernick for the first time, ironically - in New Orleans.

The coach stuck with Kaepernick through a few uneven performances, including a 42-13 thrashing in Seattle in Week 16 that left the 49ers' grip on the NFC West title tenuous. But the big-play element Kaepernick brings to the table was evident, and the read-option attack continued to develop.

It has exploded during the postseason, with the 49ers racking up 73 points through two games and often appearing unstoppable with a balance that includes explosive plays on the ground and through the air.

Kaepernick has overcome an early interception returned for a touchdown by Green Bay and a 17-0 deficit in Atlanta. In the process, he has many in the national media labeling Harbaugh as a genius.

"He just competes like a maniac all the time, in practice and in games," Harbaugh said of his young quarterback. "It's always the same when I'm looking in through the facemask that is what I'm seeing the guy doing."

And of those who surmised he submarined the 49ers' Super Bowl hopes by making the switch?

"I think winning the George Halas trophy is a huge accomplishment," Harbaugh said of the 49ers' NFC title. "It's another flag. You want to get as many trophies and flags as you can. We said at the start of this there are three Super Bowls to win. We have won two so far and have one more in two weeks."

Charged with putting a restrictor plate on the 49ers' red-hot offense is Lewis' bunch, which was racked by injuries during the regular season and had the media writing obit stories about the once-great Baltimore defense.

The Ravens give up yards in chunks. They allowed 350.9 per game during the regular season, finishing 17th against the pass and 20th against the run. They allowed a respectable 12.5 points per game, but there was a clear drop-off as Lewis was sidelined, defensive lineman Haloti Ngata gutted it out through a knee injury and Baltimore lost a string of starters that included top cornerback Lardarius Webb and linebacker Jameel McClain for the season and several others for various periods of time.

"We stuck to the course," Lewis said. "It was always, 'Next man up.' We're back and we're on our way to the Super Bowl."

That's courtesy of the defense's signature game of the season in the AFC title game. Trailing 13-7 at halftime, Baltimore shut out the vaunted New England offense during the second half while picking off quarterback Tom Brady twice.

The Ravens will face a different beast in New Orleans. San Francisco's Pistol formation requires pinpoint reads before and after the snap. And Baltimore's aging defense will have its legs tested by the likes of Kaepernick, Frank Gore, LaMichael James, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis.

Lewis returns to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2001 season. He has been playing alongside Ed Reed since the following season, Terrell Suggs since 2003, Ngata since 2006 and Flacco and Ray Rice since 2008.

"The cool thing about Ray is that he's excited about getting back there and having the opportunity to win another one for himself," Flacco said. "But he's more excited because he's felt it and wants all of us to feel it and he knows what it feels like."

Win or lose Feb. 3, Lewis will walk away from the game after 17 NFL seasons. "The last ride" has been the rallying cry during Baltimore's improbable three-game run through the AFC playoffs.

"For me to come out and say this was my last ride and for now to be headed back to the Super Bowl with the possibility of winning a second ring, how else do you cap off a career?" Lewis said.

"The last ride ... I can only tell you I'm along for the ride."