WHEN THE RAVENS RUN THE BALL: Ray Rice is the name everyone recognizes because he’s Baltimore’s lead back and has great ability to pop a big play. But keep an eye out for Bernard Pierce. He’s Baltimore’s change-of-pace runner and that change is a bigger, stronger version of Rice with the ability to break a long run as he did in the playoff win over Indianapolis when he had a 43-yard run. Pierce is averaging 6.3 yards per carry in the playoffs — better than either Rice or the 49ers’ Frank Gore. The 49ers were among the league’s elite defenses in the regular season, and one reason is they stop the run. They were fourth best in the NFL in that category, allowing 94.2 yards per game. The 49ers enjoy forcing their opponents into a pass-oriented approach so they can unleash Aldon Smith and Justin Smith on the quarterback. But when teams are able to work play-action, as the Ravens like to do, it stalls the Niners pass rush. That’s the reason it is important for the Ravens to remain balanced, and to do that, they must run effectively. ADVANTAGE: Baltimore.
WHEN THE RAVENS PASS THE BALL: Quarterback Joe Flacco proclaimed himself an elite quarterback earlier this season, but his 22 touchdown passes in the regular season didn’t exactly prove the point. His NFL-playoffs-leading eight touchdowns without an interception have made the point in much bolder fashion. Flacco is completing only 54.8 percent of his passes in the playoffs, but he has attacked defenses over the top with deep completions to Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith. Flacco has 15 completions of 20-plus yards and five completions of 40 yards or more during the Ravens’ playoff run. Even possession receiver Anquan Boldin’s yards per catch average has grown to an impressive 17.3 yards, which is deep-threat average. The 49ers are the best defense Baltimore has faced, and they simply do not allow bombs over their heads with 30 seconds to play in the game, as Denver did. They are a great — not good — tackling defense, and they do a good job of rushing the passer, as well. ADVANTAGE: San Francisco.
WHEN THE 49ERS RUN THE BALL: The San Francisco “Pistol” offense is the latest, hottest thing in the NFL. It is a mixture of the spread option and veer and pro-set. It asks the quarterback — in this case Colin Kaepernick — to not only be an option in the running game, but also actually be the first option of the running game. Let’s see how long that lasts in the NFL. Kaepernick, who runs a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash, is the perfect catalyst for the attack. The 49ers have also had great success running the look because Kaepernick can hand to Frank Gore, and he’s only the franchise’s all-time leading rusher. The creative blocking schemes the team uses are executed by an offensive line that boasts three former first-round draft picks and has been together for a while. If the Pistol can be stopped, the Ravens are a good bet to be the team to do it. They have had two weeks to figure it out. The Ravens looked at what the St. Louis Rams did in two games against San Francisco. The Rams were 1-0-1 against San Francisco this season and quite successful in playing assignment football on defense. If the Ravens can keep their gap and assignment discipline, they might force the 49ers to become one-dimensional. That’s what Baltimore wants to do. ADVANTAGE: San Francisco.
WHEN THE 49ERS PASS THE BALL: No, Colin Kaepernick is not a classic passer. His motion is a bit jerky, and he doesn’t always have good footwork. He is largely still unproven because Super Bowl XLVII will be only his 10th career start. But the second-year player is on fire in the playoffs. His 105.9 quarterback rating is the second-best of any playoff quarterback. His 9.54 yards per pass attempt is the best of any playoff quarterback, and he shows is not afraid to throw deeper balls. The Niners have an array of weapons in the passing game, but it seems odd that perhaps their most gifted pass-catcher — tight end Vernon Davis — has watched his stats decline since Kaepernick took over the starting job from Alex Smith. Wideout Michael Crabtree, meanwhile, has become San Francisco’s most dangerous player in the passing game. The Ravens are not a great pass-rush team as in years past. They aren’t particularly adept at causing turnovers, either. But they don’t give up plays over the top of their defense. They force teams to play error-free. ADVANTAGE: Baltimore.
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SPECIAL TEAMS: Wouldn’t it be ironic if Ted Ginn Jr., a former Dolphins first-round pick and bust, factored into the outcome of this game? He gets his chance returning punts for the 49ers. The more recognized returner, however, is Jacoby Jones, who was signed by Baltimore off the Houston roster to be a threat as both a punt and kickoff returner. One thing is certain: If this game comes down to a field goal try by the 49ers, they better get kicker David Akers very close. Akers connected on only 69 percent of his kicks this season — second-worst in the NFL. He connected on only 9 of 19 attempts from 40 yards out or more. ADVANTAGE: Baltimore.
COACHING: Both teams had a two weeks to prepare for this game which means something significant is about to change. Both Harbaugh brothers — Jim and John — have never lost an NFL game following a bye. Ravens coach John Harbaugh is 6-0 while brother and San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh is 3-0-1. Both of these coaching staffs are highly experienced and full of quality football minds. It’s a toss-up. ADVANTAGE: Even.