You've heard all of the storylines. Ray Lewis and his antler spray are riding into the retirement sunset. The coaches are brothers. Colin Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith this season, but hasn't Smith handled it with class? Meanwhile, Randy Moss thinks he's the GOAT (he's not).
All of that is fine and good, but what about the actual game? Who's going to win? What are the key matchups?
That last question is the one that most interests me. While this game is rife with intriguing matchups in the trenches and at the skill positions, I've identified three I'll be closely watching on Sunday. They might not be getting all the headlines, but they'll actually matter once the game begins.
Ray Lewis vs. Frank Gore
The Ravens play smart, team defense, so you have to imagine they won't let Colin Kaepernick beat them on the edge in the Niners' vaunted option-read. That means Frank Gore will be getting the ball on the inside handoff when San Francisco runs their bread-and-butter play.
That means Ray Lewis needs to shed blockers and stand Gore up in the hole.
Defeating the read-option is all about playing solid team defense, yes, but it's also about winning individual matchups and making tackles in the hole. Lewis isn't the player he once was, and if he gets pushed off the ball or allows Gore to break his tackles, Baltimore will be in very serious trouble.
Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin vs. 49ers' Secondary
Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White had little difficulty throwing the ball around on the 49ers—namely in the first half. Ryan threw for 396 yards and three touchdowns, while Jones and White combined for 18 receptions, 282 yards and two touchdowns.
Joe Flacco, Smith and Boldin will attempt to throw the ball down the field against the 49ers secondary. If history is any indication, they should succeed and big plays should be available for the Ravens.
Running the ball with Ray Rice is going to be difficult against the 49ers excellent run defense. The best way for the Ravens to score points will be opening up the 49ers in the vertical passing attack and then exploiting the gaps left in the middle of the field with Rice coming out of the backfield or with tight end Dennis Pitta.
If the Niners take away the deep ball, the Ravens are going to struggle to move the ball. However, given the success the Falcons had throwing the ball down the field, the Ravens should have some success there as well.
Vernon Davis vs. Ravens' Linebackers and Safeties
The Ravens will have their hands full with Kaepernick. Gore, Michael Crabtree and LaMichael James are all weapons they need to be prepared for. However, perhaps no player is more important to contain than Davis.
There is no way the Ravens' linebackers can hope to contain him. Ed Reed is still at his best playing centerfield. If the 49ers don't look to utilize Davis as a major part of the offensive game plan, I'd be shocked.
Much of Baltimore's preparations for this game will be slowing down the rushing attack and containing Kaepernick in the pocket. If they don't have a game plan to bracket or slow down Davis, I expect the talented tight end to have a huge game.
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