Colin Kaepernick won’t be rattled. The pressure of the Super Bowl will not get to the 49ers young quarterback.
Why would it?
His career as a starter began on Monday Night Football, and by the time that game was over he was the hottest thing in the NFL. But when the playoffs rolled around, his haters said the postseason pressure would affect second-year signal caller.
And they were right… for about three minutes. After throwing a pick-six in the Divisional Round’s opening, drive Kaepernick responded with perhaps the best postseason performance by a quarterback this year. A week later he found himself down 17-0 on the road in the NFC Championship Game. Didn’t faze Kaepernick. He finished that game with a quarterback rating of 127.7 as he led the 49ers to their sixth Super Bowl in franchise history. On a team full of veterans and Pro Bowlers, Kaepernick fits right in. He has that “been-there-before” mentality, and the game’s biggest stage won’t affect his play.
It won’t affect his teammates either. This is a confident group that has taken on the identity of coach Jim Harbaugh—tough, physical and gritty.
Offensively, the 49ers made it this far behind a strong ground game, and there’s no reason to change that up against a Baltimore defense which ranked 20th in the League against the run. Frank Gore will get his. So will LaMichael James, who has seen increased playing time during the playoffs. The big question is whether Kaepernick will too. He set an NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a game with 181 in the Divisional Round, but was held to just 21 on two carries a week later.
The Ravens will try to contain him, especially on read-option plays, but Baltimore struggled both times it faced mobile quarterbacks this season–in Week 2 against Philadelphia and Week 14 against Washington, both losses.
Even if Kaepenick is kept inside the pocket, he’s proved he can win games with his arm too. Just ask the Falcons. While they kept Kaepernick legs in check, he burned them with his arm to the tune of 233 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
Vernon Davis re-emerged as a weapon in the passing game against Atlanta with five catches for 106 yards and a score. And as is the case against most teams, the 49ers tight end is too fast for Baltimore’s linebacking corps and too big to be negated by its safeties. If the Kaepenick-Davis connection can get going again, that can really open things up on the outside.
We know what Michael Crabtree has done lately (176 yards and a touchdown in two playoff games), but Randy Moss will come into this game with an extra chip on his shoulder. Not only will he be trying to prove he is the greatest receiver of all time, but after getting so close to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy with the 2007 Patriots, Moss has to be consumed by winning it all.
Defensively, there’s no need to switch things up for San Francisco either, assuming Justin Smith is close to 100-percent healthy. The All-Pro defensive tackle is the most important player on this unit because opposing offenses must double-team him on every play. When Smith went down with a torn triceps Week 15 in New England, the whole dynamic of the defense changed. The Patriots scored most of their 34 points with Smith on the sidelines, then the 49ers gave up 42 points to Seattle a week later without Smith. You can discredit the 13 they allowed in the season finale against Arizona because, well, it was Arizona.
Smith was clearly not at full strength the first two playoff games, but with two weeks’ rest he should be close. A healthy Justin Smith makes life much easier for outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who totaled 19.5 sacks in the regular season. If Aldon Smith can pressure Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, it won’t be easy for the gunslinger to connect on big plays like he has all season.
Even with pressure, covering wide receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin is no easy task. Plus, the San Francisco pass defense has struggled this postseason allowing 653 passing yards and five touchdowns in two games. The 49ers have fared much better against the run, but they’re yet to face a running back tandem the caliber of Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce in the playoffs. Still, that front seven may be the best in football and should be able to at least slow them down.
Overall, comparing the two teams by position, there are very few matchups in Baltimore’s favor. Actually, I only count two: wide receivers and kicker—though the argument can be made at quarterback, as well.
The 49ers don’t have a major advantage on the rest of the field, but they are more talented. This game will be close—neither team has any quit it in it—but I just can’t see Baltimore overcoming that talent gap.
Prediction: 49ers 28, Ravens 24