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Ravens-49ers Super Bowl preview

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Sports,NFL,Ravens,John Keim

Three areas to watch

1. Baltimore's defense vs. the zone read option » The Ravens faced a similar, though not completely identical, attack vs. Washington and struggled at times. They're a disciplined defense that was caught too often looking in the backfield while receivers broke open. They guessed wrong on the handoffs at times too. The key for Baltimore is stopping Frank Gore on the inside runs while preventing Colin Kaepernick from rushing outside. The Ravens physical D must stop a power run game.

2. San Francisco's pass rush » Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco hasn't thrown an interception in three postseason games. His pocket awareness is spotty when pressured, but if he's not hurried, his big arm will result in huge plays. But the Niners haven't done a good job of applying pressure in the postseason, with only two sacks (and 12 in their last seven games). According to ESPN.com, the Ravens are 33-4 when Flacco finishes with a passer rating of 95 or higher.

3. The tight ends » One reason Baltimore's offense has flourished is underrated pass-catching tight end Dennis Pitta. And one reason San Francisco's has shined is stud tight end Vernon Davis. The latter often gets lost in coverage because of the zone read play-action game. The Ravens' linebackers aren't as equipped to cover the tight end -- Ray Lewis is too slow for this matchup, though Dannell Ellerbe might be alright. But the Niners' linebackers -- Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman -- have excellent speed to handle this chore.

Key matchups

San Francisco DE Aldon Smith

He had 19 1/2 sacks on the season, but none in his last five games.

vs.

Baltimore LT Bryant McKinnie

He and his linemates have allowed just four sacks in three postseason games.

San Francisco CB Tarell Brown

Assuming Carlos Rogers takes Anquan Boldin, Brown must defend the speedy Smith.

vs.

Baltimore WR Torrey Smith

He's averaging 22.0 yards per catch on nine postseason receptions.

San Francisco WR Michael Crabtree

He has 15 catches and two touchdowns in two postseason games.

vs.

Baltimore CB Cary Williams

He's intercepted two passes in the postseason and has played well this season.

State of the teams

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens are a surprise participant —they lost four of five to close the regular season — but this shouldn't be totally unexpected. They were a dropped pass away from being in this game a year ago. They got healthy defensively and a December change at offensive coordinator has led to a stronger, more consistent attack. They're playing with a confidence and swagger that's tough to beat.

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers were picked by many to reach this point. But they haven't reached this spot the conventional way, changing quarterbacks midway through the season. They've been tested in the postseason: trailing 7-0 to Green Bay and 17-0 to Atlanta in consecutive wins. Like the Ravens, they're tough minded and physical. They have the better defense.

Examiner predicts

Flacco hasn't thrown a pick in five games. The Niners will end that streak and win the turnover battle.

Niners 27, Ravens 24

jkeim@washingtonexaminer.com

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