Early Super Bowl preview: The Harbaugh brothers are not the only storyline

Brian McIntyre
Shutdown Corner

We'll certainly be covering all aspects of Super Bowl XLVII throughout the next two weeks at Shutdown Corner, but here are a few general observations about the upcoming game.

Super Bowl XLVII
San Francisco 49ers vs. Baltimore Ravens
Feb. 3, 6:30 p.m. ET
Mercedez-Benz Superdome, New Orleans

Over the next two weeks, there will be countless stories about "HarBowl I," as 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and Ravens head coach John Harbaugh are, in fact, brothers. That storyline is already testing the patience of football fans, and football scribes, everywhere, but when you step back for a minute, it is a rather impressive feat. Two brothers are coaching against one another in the Super Bowl!

Prior to his team taking on the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game, John Harbaugh watched his younger brother's team cap off an impressive 28-24 comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons while his own players stretched and warmed up on the field at Gillette Stadium. The elder Harbaugh brother sent a congratulatory message through a CBS camera and, after beating the Patriots 28-13, spoke of how proud he was of Jim's accomplishment.

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“[I] couldn’t be more proud of Jim,” John said in his postgame media conference. “Watching that team play, they do reflect his personality. They have a great staff. They’re physical players, man. They run the ball, they throw the ball, they have a quarterback that’s throwing the ball all over the place. They’ve got a rough-house defense. There’s a reason they are in the Super Bowl. Love the way they play.”

There is a lot to like about the way the 49ers are playing on offense.

After a slow start against the Falcons, second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was making just his ninth NFL start, completed 16-of-21 pass attempts for 233 yards and a touchdown. In a divisional playoff win over the Green Bay Packers, Kaepernick set the NFL single-game record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 181 yards (and two touchdowns) on 16 attempts. Against the Falcons, Kaepernick ran the ball only twice for 21 yards, gaining 23 on a scramble. The unique threat that Kaepernick presents defenses, however, was enough to freeze the Falcons' defenders, allowing running backs Frank Gore and LaMichael James to gash Atlanta for 124 yards and three touchdowns.

Kaepernick should present a difficult challenge to a Ravens defense that has been on the field for 256 plays this postseason, defeating Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady to advance to Super Bowl XVLII. The Ravens have allowed a lot of yards during the playoffs - 415.0 per game - but due to the volume of plays run against them, they're allowing just 4.86 yards per play, the fewest among the 12 playoff teams. The two weeks of rest should help the two elder statesmen on the Ravens' defense - 37-year-old inside linebacker Ray Lewis and 34-year-old free safety Ed Reed - and inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who has been battling ankle and back injuries.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco enters Super Bowl XLVII as perhaps the hottest player in the league. After an up-and-down regular season, which also happened to be the final year of Flacco's rookie contract, the 2008 first-round pick out of Delaware has been sensational this postseason, completing 51-of-93 pass attempts for 853 yards with eight touchdowns and zero interceptions for a passer rating of 114.7. A large portion of that success can be credited to a reshuffled offensive line that has allowed just four sacks this postseason, giving Flacco time to hit his preferred targets of wide receivers Anquan Boldin (16 receptions, 276 yards, three touchdowns) and Torrey Smith (nine receptions, 198 yards, two touchdowns) and tight end Dennis Pitta, who has 10 catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns in the postseason.

[Related: Joe Flacco backs up elite talk]

The 49ers trailed the Falcons 24-14 at the half on Sunday largely due to a red-hot quarterback having faith in big, physical receivers who are capable of making the contested catch. There may not be a more physical wide receiver in the NFL than Boldin, and while Pitta lacks the Hall of Fame pedigree of a Tony Gonzalez, he has the talent and the rapport with Flacco to have a monster game on any given Sunday. Along with Smith, the Ravens have the weapons in the passing game to challenge the 49ers' secondary.

Baltimore also brings a revitalized ground game capable of pounding and tiring out an NFL defense. It all starts with Ray Rice, who behind Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach, has 247 yards and two touchdowns this postseason. Rice was limited to just 48 yards on 19 attempts in Sunday's win over the Patriots, but rookie running back Bernard Pierce produced 52 yards on just nine carries, increasing his postseason production totals to 169 yards on 27 attempts, with 103 of those yards coming in the 24-9 win over the Colts on Jan. 6.

The difference in this game could come down to the kickers. After 2010 Pro Bowler and All-Pro Billy Cundiff missed a kick that would have forced overtime in last year's AFC title game, the Ravens replaced him with undrafted rookie Justin Tucker. The former Texas Longhorn standout was 30-of-33 in the regular season and 2-for-2 in the playoffs. Meanwhile, nobody missed more field-goal attempts in the regular season than the 49ers' David Akers, who doinked a 38-yarder off the uprights in Sunday's win over the Falcons. Akers' accuracy was such a concern the 49ers added Cundiff to the roster after the regular season, but waived him on Friday so they could add wide receiver Chad Hall to the active roster on Saturday.

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