These are the names that either Flacco or Kaepernick will soon join, and as the Ravens and 49ers tear through the playoffs, it’s difficult to know who has the early advantage.
“He just competes like a maniac all the time, in practice and in games,” Kaepernick’s coach, Jim Harbaugh, said Sunday. “It’s always the same when I’m looking in through the face mask.”
Flacco has been criticized and questioned throughout his five-year career. Is he elite or not? Can he lead his team to greatness, or will he always fall short? Flacco was nearly perfect in Sunday evening’s 28-13 defeat of the Patriots for the AFC title, and he’ll likely need a similar performance against the 49ers if he is to take on membership in the fraternity of championship quarterbacks.
Both men will, of course, be asked to carry a heavy burden. This is the reality of the Super Bowl and today’s NFL. One will emerge as a clutch leader, a champion who has been waiting for his day, and the other will fall short. Questions will follow the loser, and future postseason appearances will come with added pressure.
In the modern football landscape, playoff winners and Super Bowl teams score a lot of points. Defenses no longer win championships, but they give their offenses a chance to make something happen. The 49ers averaged more than 36 points in their two playoff wins, and the Ravens averaged 30 in three victories to reach the title game.
The days are gone of a suffocating defense consistently holding an opponent to a touchdown or two. These days, it’s about making that one stop or getting that one turnover to change the arc of a game. In the NFC championship game, Atlanta and San Francisco were in a race to see who erred first. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan’s interception and fumbled snap turned that 28-24 victory by the 49ers, the biggest reason it’ll be Kaepernick and not Ryan chasing his first championship.
In Foxborough, Mass., it was the Patriots who uncharacteristically turned the ball over three times while the Ravens made no such mistakes.
Still, both the Ravens and 49ers have strong defenses and will hope for big plays, if not lean on them. San Francisco was third in total defense during the regular season, allowing 294.4 yards per game, and outside linebacker Aldon Smith was second in the league with 19.5 sacks. Smith was one of six 49ers defenders to be named to the initial Pro Bowl team, though none will participate in Sunday’s all-star game because they’ll be traveling to New Orleans instead.
Against Atlanta, the 49ers took advantage of the Falcons’ mistakes, but a stop late in the fourth quarter sealed San Francisco’s victory. Running back Frank Gore said his team was “built for” games like Sunday’s, when San Francisco needed a comeback, and one of those defensive Pro Bowlers, defensive tackle Justin Smith, agreed.
“That’s the group of guys we have in there: unselfish, hardworking. That’s how you get to this point,” he said. “It’s just fun to be a part of that.”
Baltimore, known for years as one of the league’s top defenses, slipped this season and advanced in the postseason in spite of that. Linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed are aging, and linebacker Terrell Suggs had injuries throughout 2012.
Reed said after his team’s victory at New England that, despite the shortcomings and setbacks, Coach John Harbaugh rallied the Ravens.
“He had a vision of working us a certain way and taking us through something, to build something, to create this moment,” Reed said. “And we believed it, but it was just something we had to go through as men and understanding each other, to understand the process together.”
The story lines that will unfold over the next two weeks will center on the brothers Harbaugh coaching against each other in the Super Bowl, and on Lewis’s retirement, which he announced before the playoffs. But what will be remembered is how one team’s defense held its opponent in check, at least long enough for its quarterback to make his own name.
“It just takes growth, and [Flacco] embraced it,” Reed said. “We’ve helped each other along the way. Every teammate, every coach, we’ve helped each other along the way.”