Sixty minutes remain in the 2012 season for the Baltimore Ravens.
Only sixty minutes are left in the Hall of Fame career of 37-year-old linebacker Ray Lewis.
Head coach John Harbaugh, quarterback Joe Flacco, and the Ravens might call themselves Super Bowl champions after 60 minutes of play in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans on Sunday night. To do it, they must topple the San Francisco 49ers, a team with a loaded roster and more talent than Baltimore.
The 49ers are the better overall team — or at least looked like it all season — but the Ravens have heard that story before and are fine being underdogs as we learned against the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots. Baltimore prevailed in the most-recent meeting with the 49ers last season and owns a 3-1 advantage in the all-time regular-season series.
But none of that matters now as the Ravens and 49ers play for the right to be called champions of Super Bowl XLVII.
Here’s what to expect as the 13-6 Ravens attempt to win their second NFL championship and first since Jan. 28, 2001 while San Francisco tries to win its sixth Super Bowl title and first since the 1994 season …
1. Ray Lewis will provide a solid but unspectacular effort in his final NFL game with nine tackles against the run-heavy San Francisco offense. The 49ers will have some success running the football with their read-option attack, but the presence of Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe at inside linebacker — both missed the Dec. 9 game against Washington’s similar running game — will make a major difference in preventing running back Frank Gore from having a big day. Lewis is a clear liability in pass coverage and the Ravens will be vulnerable should he need to match up with a tight end or running back at any point, but the veteran still plays the run solidly. It won’t be a performance reminiscent of Super Bowl XXXV, but Lewis’ cerebral presence will be a major asset in trying to deal with the 49ers’ pistol formation.
2. 49ers tight end Vernon Davis will be problematic over the middle of the field, catching a touchdown and 85 receiving yards to lead the 49ers. The Ravens have proven over and over they have few answers for the top tight ends in the NFL as Aaron Hernandez was the latest to have a strong game against them in the conference championship. Ellerbe and strong safety Bernard Pollard will be the ones to draw the assignment most often, but that becomes dangerous when you consider how critical each is to stopping the run against such a unique offense. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will mix it up as much as he can, but Davis will be difficult to stop and the 49ers would be wise to go to him early and often.
3. As I predicted in the AFC Championship game, the team that wins the battle in the red zone will prevail in New Orleans. The Ravens were 4-for-4 in the red zone against New England and held the Patriots to one touchdown in four trips inside the 20. It’s a simple concept, but the team that can limit its opponents to field goals inside the red zone will have a great chance to win in what should be a very close game. The Baltimore defense has employed a “bend but don’t break” philosophy all season long and just finds the ability to tighten up when opponents see the end zone in clear focus. The Ravens ranked second in red-zone defense (43.4 percent) while the 49ers were 21st in red-zone offense (50.9 percent). Meanwhile, the Baltimore offense scored touchdowns on 57.1 percent of trips inside the 20 (11th in the NFL) while San Francisco allowed touchdowns in 61.1 percent of opponents’ red-zone opportunities. The team that wins this battle will raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
4. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick will play admirably, but a critical turnover in the second half will cost the 49ers dearly. Making his 10th career start on Sunday, Kaepernick is already an incredible story as he’s found success so quickly after replacing former starter Alex Smith midway through the season. His ability to make huge plays as a runner kept Pees and the Baltimore defense awake at night over these last two weeks, and the Ravens will be careful to protect the edges and force the 49ers to count on inside runs with Gore. Kaepernick’s arm shouldn’t be slept on by the Baltimore defense, but you feel better about the thought of him dropping back to throw 35 or 40 times as opposed to letting him rush for 85 yards in open spaces continuously. As impressive as he’s been in the postseason, Kaepernick hasn’t faced a defense as hot as this one and he’ll throw a crucial interception in the fourth quarter to swing the momentum in the Ravens’ favor.
5. Continuing one of the best postseasons in NFL history, Joe Flacco shows the world it’s his time as he leads the Ravens to a 27-24 victory and is named Super XLVII Most Valuable Player. I picked against the Ravens in Denver and Foxborough, so fans may wish I were doing it again but I just can’t overlook what’s happened over the last month. The offensive line has been exceptional, the defense more dynamic, and the Ravens just have the feel of a champion at this point. This will be a close game, but I’m going to side with the team that has the better quarterback as I erroneously attempted to do in picking the Broncos and the Patriots. Flacco has been brilliant in the playoffs, throwing eight touchdown passes without an interception, and he has continued to remain even-keeled throughout this improbable run. He’ll throw for 250 yards and two touchdowns to put a bow on one of the greatest individual playoff runs in NFL history. Kaepernick might be the next big thing at the quarterback position, but Flacco and Harbaugh finally step into the limelight they deserve and Lewis rides off into the sunset with the franchise’s second Super Bowl title.