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Super Bowl Breakdown: Keys to Success for Ravens, 49ers

What do the Ravens and 49ers need to do to win on Sunday?

By Josh Alper
|  Wednesday, Jan 15, 2014  |  Updated 4:24 PM CDT
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Super Bowl Breakdown: Keys to Success for Ravens, 49ers

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We've officially reached the point where it's okay to stop focusing on the spectacle of the Super Bowl and start focusing on the game. That means the only reason to talk about John or Jim Harbaugh is to discuss the coaching decisions that they'll have to make, rather than the fact that they shared the backseat in a family car.

Both coaches already made their biggest moves of the year: John fired his offensive coordinator in December, a move that could have backfired in spectacular fashion if the Ravens hadn't caught fire.  Jim turned the offense over to Colin Kaepernick even though things were going well in San Francisco.

Those were the kinds of risky moves that got the teams to this game, so we know that neither side is going to be afraid to go for broke. Here's what to watch for on Sunday evening:

Ravens Offense vs. 49ers Defense: Joe Flacco's made headlines for throwing eight touchdowns and no interceptions in the playoffs, but the resurgence of the Ravens running game has been a hidden reason for that. They've been feeding Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce the ball more than 30 times a game in the postseason, making life easier for Flacco. 

The 49ers defense isn't easy to run against, but the addition of Bryant McKinnie at left tackle and the injury to defensive lineman Justin Smith gives the Ravens reason to believe they can keep the ball rolling. If they can, it will help them avoid exposing some bad matchups in pass protection (Michael Oher vs. Ahmad Brooks, Justin and Aldon Smith against McKinnie and guard Kelechi Osemele). 

The 49ers will play man on the outside, something wide receiver Torrey Smith struggled with against New England. Anquan Boldin thrived, however, and getting the run going would open up the play-action shots down the field that Baltimore enjoys taking. 

49ers Offense vs. Ravens Defense: It's become a passing league, but the 49ers run game is a thing of beauty. Kaepernick's read-option skills are all the rage, but the 49ers were already a good power running team with Alex Smith. 

Now, they can overwhelm you on the ground both ways, and Frank Gore looks fresher than he did at the end of last season. The Ravens will counter with a well-rested Haloti Ngata in the middle and athletic players at the edges in an attempt to avoid overcommitting to one while allowing the other to beat them. 

The 49ers throw a lot of different formations out there, which will require a lot of discipline from the Ravens defense to identify and communicate with one another. Those formations are designed to come up with favorable matchups for Kaepernick's targets in the passing game while also making it easier for the still-inexperienced quarterback to make the right decisions.

Ravens Will Be Happy If: Strangely enough, they might be happy to see Kaepernick run a bit early in the game so that they have a chance to get physical with him right away. The Ravens beat the Patriots up in the AFC Championship Game, and they'd love to do the same to the 49ers in the Super Bowl. Hitting Kaepernick is a good way to make that happen, although the 49ers haven't been easy to push around this year.

49ers Will Be Happy If: The two Smiths on the 49ers defense were running roughshod over the league through the first 14 weeks or so of the regular season, but since Justin's injury, Aldon's pass-rushing productivity has fallen off. If the two of them come up with a play or two to disrupt Flacco, it will be a very good sign for the Niners. 

Ravens X-Factor: Linebacker Terrell Suggs started the season with an Achilles injury and suffered a torn biceps muscle later, which kept him from playing at the level he did in 2011, when he won Defensive Player of the Year. He's looked lively in the playoffs, though, and hes the kind of athletic edge player that can both pressure Kaepernick on passes and clamp down on the read-option. If the extra time off gives Suggs something extra, he could make a big difference.

49ers X-Factor: When Kaepernick took over, tight end Vernon Davis dropped off the face of the Earth. He had just six catches in the final five weeks of the regular season. But he's been rediscovered in the playoffs. Davis has six catches for 150 yards in the two 49ers wins and he's got the potential to be a matchup nightmare for Ravens linebackers Dannell Ellerbe, who has an ankle injury, and Ray Lewis, whose coverage deficiencies help explain why he's retiring.

Key Matchup: Ray Rice vs. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. The importance of Rice to the Ravens offense can't be overstated, both as a runner and a receiver on screen passes. When their offense is looking good, Rice is in the middle of everything. 

To get Rice free on Sunday, the Ravens will need to handle the 49ers' all-world inside linebacking duo. Willis and Bowman excel in all phases, so it's not like there's some way to limit their effectiveness through creative playcalling. The Ravens are going to have to block them, but Rice also has to run around or through them for the Ravens to dictate the pace and tenor of the game. 

That's key, because the 49ers are the more talented team from top to bottom. Riding Rice makes that a lot less important because it's hard to score when you don't have the ball.

Josh Alper is also a writer for Pro Football Talk. You can follow him on Twitter.

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