The Harbaugh Bowl has finally come to fruition, as John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens (10-6-0) face off against him brother Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1). Let’s look at 3 things to watch for:
Which defense will show up?
For years, the Ravens have had one of the best defenses in the NFL. But as their superstars begin to show their age, the unit has started to slip. Surefire Hall of Famer Ray Lewis has already announced that this is his final season, and the talk of Ed Reed hanging up his cleats has already swirled the past couple of offseasons due to neck injuries. After having a decidedly average season, the Raven defense has had its two best games of the year in its last two outings (per DVOA). Conversely, San Francisco’s elite defense had its worst game of the year last week. DE Justin Smith (left arm) has not looked fully healthy, and Pro Bowler Dashon Goldson was burned multiple times by Atlanta receivers.
Which offense will show up?
Same concept, different reasoning. San Francisco is ranked 5th in offensive DVOA on the season, but they’re 24th in variance; Baltimore is ranked 13th on the season, 30th in variance (per DVOA). Baltimore’s offense has been very good in the postseason. Denver’s defense is excellent, so it’s not like they’ve been running through cupcakes, and San Francisco struggled mightily last week. If they can’t get to QB Joe Flacco, which is likely given the play of Baltimore’s offensive line of late, and the lack of a pass rush from Smith and San Francisco, that’ll open up some of the quarterback’s beautiful shots downfield. The 49ers, on the other hand, should be expected to put up points. TE Vernon Davis has taken a big hit in the passing game since Colin Kaepernick took over at quarterback, but Davis exploded last week for 106 yards and a touchdown. Why? Atlanta has struggled against the tight end all season. With Baltimore’s 26th ranked rush defense facing off against San Francisco’s #3 rush offense, expect Jim Harbaugh to administer a heavy dose of Frank Gore.
Ray Rice vs. San Francisco defense
Ray Rice is one of the most dynamic running backs in the league. While he only averaged 16 carries per game in the regular season, he’s averaged over 20 in his 3 post-season games. It has come at the expense of touches in the passing game, however, with 5 targets per game in the regular season vs. 3 in the postseason. Rice will face off against one of the most respected defensive teams in the NFL. Not only do they excel against the run, but against passes to running backs. If Rice can do some damage, it’ll be huge in giving the Baltimore defense a breather, as well as opening up the secondary for Flacco.
If this were a regular season affair, I would be selecting the 49ers. Unfortunately for San Francisco, Baltimore seems so motivated by Ray Lewis that they’ve been playing by far their best football of the season. Not only has it helped the defense, but Joe Flacco has provided the team with big plays when they’re needed, recording an 8:0 TD:INT ratio in 3 playoff games to couple with over 9 yards per attempt. This really is a game that could go either way, but I wouldn’t bet against Baltimore in a game that comes down to the wire.
Baltimore 24, San Francisco 21