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Sibling rivalry steps up a notch

Alex Dimond February 1, 2013
Colin Kaepernick and Ray Lewis are two of the big storylines ahead of Super Bowl 47 © Getty Images
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Super Bowl XLVII
Superdome, New Orleans
February 3
Start time: 11.30pm (UK time)


The 47th Super Bowl will be a landmark occasion - as two brothers face off as head coaches of the opposing teams for the first time in the showpiece game's remarkable history.

For the Harbaughs, Jim and John, as for the wider footballing public, it is the major storyline of the Baltimore Ravens' upcoming meeting with the San Francisco 49ers. History will remember the game for its unlikely sibling rivalry - the Har Bowl, the Super Baugh, or whichever witty moniker by which it is ultimately known - but, as with many such unlikely storylines, for those in the present - in the actual build-up to the match - it simply leads to repetitive and derivative stories covering the same tired ground about the Harbaughs, at the expense of the game itself.

Which is a shame, because there are many other intriguing threads to focus on ahead of the big game in New Orleans. There is the impending retirement of Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis (not to mention the uncertain future of his long-time partner in crime, Ed Reed), and the perhaps debatable place he will subsequently hold within the game's wider history.

Then there is the 49ers, and their mid-season decision to switch quarter-backs - ostensibly in order to reach, and win, this very game. Will Jim Harbaugh's decision be rewarded to the fullest, or will Colin Kaepernick - the player with perhaps more pressure than any other heading into the contest - fall short at the final hurdle?

Sunday's match will give us the answers to those myriad plotlines, and many others too. History may focus on which Harbaugh won - but there is much more to this game than family bragging rights.

So, ahead of the kick-off, we evaluate various aspects of both teams and attempt to predict a winner.


The Quarterbacks

Baltimore Ravens - Joe Flacco

Joe Flacco has finally reached the Super Bowl © Getty Images
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Back in 2008, the Ravens were coming off an uncharacteristically poor campaign that left them with with both a problem and an obvious solution - they needed a new quarterback, and they had the eighth pick in the draft to grab one. In the end, after evaluating players, they settled on Flacco as the man for them - but there was a hitch, they only actually graded him out as a late first-round talent. The solution was clever, the team trading down to 26th (and then up to 18th) to take the University of Delaware graduate.

It is tempting to say the Ravens got what they paid for. Flacco enjoyed an impressive debut season but has not really progressed since - continuing to deliver the team to the playoffs without joining any conversations about being 'the league's best' or, most importantly, looking like delivering a Super Bowl trip.

Of course, that has changed this season - Flacco making the right decisions, and getting the right slices of luck, at the right times to finally deliver his team to the promised land. He is not a real running threat and, as a result, his ceiling is not as high as his opposite number's on Sunday - but his team do not really need him to be all things to all people in order to win. All he needs to do is spread enough balls to the likes of Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin to keep the 49ers' defense pegged back and allow Ray Rice room to run, and the Ravens have a chance to win.

But if he lets mistakes slip into his decision-making process - or, even worse, drops in a few dreaded turnovers - then his side could find themselves in real trouble.

San Francisco 49ers - Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick - a Gareth Bale fan? © Getty Images
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In a year that has seen an unprecedented number of rookie quarter-backs - Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson - put together incredible campaigns, it is interesting that it is Kaepernick - not a true rookie, but not a starter until halfway through this season - that is the one who has made it to the Super Bowl.

Kaepernick's explosion onto the scene was a gamble taken by coach Jim Harbaugh with the Super Bowl in mind. At the start of the season, with former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith under centre, the 49ers had a perfectly serviceable quarter-back who was proving himself increasingly able of managing a contending team to victory after victory. But Kaepernick - 6'5" and with a monster stride - offered a different threat and so, when Smith suffered a mid-season concussion, the youngster was controversially named the team's new starter.

Contending teams simply do not make such changes mid-season, but Harbaugh dances to his own beat - and the move has reaped rewards. Kaepernick has allowed his team to implement the en vogue pistol offense as the season has worn on and, as the playoff win over the Green Bay Packers highlighted, his ability to run the football has decimated some teams.

But he can play the conventional quarter-back role too - in the Conference Finals Atlanta took away his ability to run, so he simply used his arm and beat the Falcons in the air instead. Kaepernick will decide how exciting the Super Bowl is - the only question is whether he rises to the occasion or, after barely half-a-season as his side's main man, his accelerated path to stardom proves slightly too much, too soon on the biggest stage of all.


The coaches

Baltimore Ravens - John Harbaugh

Unlike his brother, the only moderately-gifted player (he featured at a low-level college, but never made it in the pros) has earned his spurs after doing the hard yards in a series of minor coaching roles - before stepping up into the big seat at Baltimore and proving himself more than up for the challenge.

Aided by an astute general manager - Ozzie Newsome - Harbaugh has guided the Ravens to success on a consistent basis during his time. Not considered the innovator - or motivator - that is brother is, John perhaps brings a calm and consideration to his role that is perhaps exactly what this Ravens team requires.

Jim and John Harbaugh are the first brothers to coach in the Super Bowl against each other © Getty Images
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San Francisco 49ers - Jim Harbaugh

The younger Harbaugh brother and, by all accounts, the more competitive. Jim was a quarter-back as a player - beating out his brother for their high school starting spot (something that John reportedly took with much better grace than most would muster) before going on to amass a 14-year NFL career of moderate-to-good standing.

As a coach, however, the erratic, impulsive leader has been a revelation - producing winning teams in the college game (most notably at Stanford) before moving on to the 49ers two years ago and immediately turning around the franchise.

An enthusiastic leader but, more pertinently, an extremely innovative footballing mind, Jim has quickly established himself as one of the most well-respected coaches in the game.


The Offenses

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens offense can probably be best described as 'balanced' - Flacco would probably be considered a 7/10 quarter-back and, with some variation either way, most of the other components around him grade out in similar fashion.

That is probably unfair on Ray Rice - the pocket rocket of a running back who has kept his side going in many a game since entering the league - but the half-back is perhaps not used quite as heavily as he would be at other, less talent-rich, organisations around the league. That is something that might change in the Super Bowl, however, especially if Flacco gets off to an uncertain start.

Flacco has some great weapons to throw too - perhaps the main reason Rice does not get the primacy his talent may deserve. Torrey Smith is developing as a Randy Moss-esque physical presence down the sidelines (more on Moss later), while Anquan Boldin has proven himself one of the most reliable receivers in the game - leaving the Cardinals after their Super Bowl failure to become a key part of the Ravens offense.

The 49ers will know all about both players, however, so watch out for tight-end Dennis Pitta - who could be targeted more often as Flacco bids to evade the San Fran rush.

A quick note about the line - Michael Oher (the subject of the book and film 'The Blind Side') will have the chance to live up to the billing he received in Michael Lewis's famous opus, key as the tackle will be to keeping Flacco protected. Bryant McKinnie - while having had no book written about him - will be just as significant.

San Francisco 49ers

To a far greater extent than the Ravens, the San Francisco offense is all about Colin Kaepernick - although, like their opponents on Sunday, they can turn over the keys to running back Frank Gore should they need to.

Gore is a quality, durable running back who can produce big runs at will - but Jim Harbaugh will ideally look to use him as a goal-line threat for much of the game, distracting from Kaepernick when the unit is further upfield.

Which receiver will play the biggest role on Sunday depends greatly on how the coach breaks down the opposition defense. In the last game, against Atlanta, it was tight end Vernon Davis who was the main beneficiary, having hardly caught a ball in the games prior to that. But it is more likely that one of the two wideouts - Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss - will take the big plays in this one.

Crabtree is a solid, no-frills receiver - but Moss is the wildcard, a veteran (future of Hall of Famer) enjoying one last hurrah. After Super Bowl disappointment with the Patriots, a Plaxico Burress-esque impact on this match is very possible.


Defenses

Baltimore Ravens

Much of the pre-match focus has been on the Ravens D, a beast of almost mythical tenacity that - to be brutally honest - is not quiet the threat it once was.

Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are two future Hall of Famers but, if this is indeed the last game for both of them in a Ravens uniform (Reed is not certain to retire, but could leave in free agency) then the time has probably come. Lewis, 37, is a master of self-promotion, but he is not the disruptive defensive force he once was.

In truth, that role on the Ravens now lies with defensive end Haloti Ngata - a physical freak capable of beating his man to pressure the quarter-back with regularity. The defensive line might end up being key to how the Ravens fare on Sunday, not what Lewis and (to a lesser extent) Reed offers up.

San Francisco 49ers

Recognised as perhaps the best defense in the game last season, the 49ers are still good - just perhaps not quite as good.

The linebackers corp - NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis - is intimidating in the extreme, and it would be a surprise if Flacco did not get sacked at least a couple of times on Sunday. And, as many teams will tell you, sacks can prove especially crucial in the Super Bowl.


Prediction

Somewhat emboldened by last year's surprisingly accurate prediction, we can see this being a more one-sided showpiece than in years past.

The Ravens have done well to reach this stage, but in truth they were few peoples' favourites to progress from the AFC - a division that, perhaps the Patriots apart, was devoid of a contender that you truly thought could go all the way.

The 49ers, meanwhile, have beaten two very strong teams - the Packers and the Falcons - to get to this stage, cementing their status as almost certainly the best side in football over the last two years. The best side in any given season does not always win the Super Bowl (the Patriots can tell you a thing or two about that) but on this occasion they should have enough to get the job done.

Kaepernick is ultimately a more threatening quarter-back than the level-headed but rarely-inspired Flacco, while the 49ers - despite all the bluster about the Ravens legends on the other side of the ball - is ultimately a more aggressive and effective defense too.

Facing his brother, Jim Harbaugh might find his characteristic inventiveness pre-emptied and nullified more than usual, but the 49ers should still get the victory - and may do so by more than one score.

Score: Baltimore Ravens 17 San Francisco 49ers 27


© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk