Two years ago, the San Francisco 49ers were 6-10 and near the bottom of the NFC West. Since head coach Jim Harbaugh came from Stanford beginning in the 2011 season, they’ve gone to two straight NFC Championship games and now play in their first Super Bowl since 1995. A stout defense led by Patrick Willis now has an effective counterpart in a powerful offense led by the exciting Colin Kaepernick. These units could return the 49ers to their past glory. Here are three keys to San Francisco winning in New Orleans this weekend.
1. Randy Moss needs to take the top off the defense
Randy Moss goes deep. In his heyday he did it better than anyone else. He’s not the wide receiver he was the last time he played in the Super Bowl for the undefeated New England Patriots, but, he can still take the top off the defense. And with Colin Kaepernick throwing lasers from the pocket, the Ravens secondary must respect Moss when he takes off down the field. That’s the big difference between Kaepernick and the quarterback he replaced, Alex Smith. Colin can threaten deep, Alex can’t. Pushing the Ravens safeties and corners back to protect against Moss will give Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis—who aren’t deep threats like Moss—room to find seams in the defense and keep the 49ers offense moving the chains.
[Video: Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh NFL Rush Zone cartoon]
2. The secondary can’t get beat deep
In the NFC Championship Game, Julio Jones abused the vaunted San Francisco secondary. In the first quarter of the game he blew past 49ers safety Dashon Goldson for a 46-yard touchdown. In the second quarter, Jones snagged a 20-yard score. The 49ers cannot let that happen against the Ravens. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco has one of the strongest arms in the league. So if Torrey Smith or Anquan Boldin gets deep for the Ravens, Flacco can easily hit them for a long touchdown. That means San Francisco’s secondary may have to cheat deep to prevent the big play. It will leave Ray Rice and tight end Dennis Pitta more open on short routes over the middle, but that’s much better than giving up 50-yard touchdowns over the top.
3. Don’t let the game come down to a field goal
The last thing 49ers fans want to hear Jim Nantz say on Sunday is “…and David Akers trots on for a field goal try.” Check that, the VERY LAST thing they want to hear is Nantz say “… and David Akers trots on for the game-winning field goal try.” Sure, Akers tied the NFL record for longest field goal when he nailed a 63-yarder against the Packers in Week 1. Since then? Not so good. He ranks 30th in field-goal percentage this year out of 31 kickers, nailing only 69 percent of his attempts. And last week, he missed a kick that would have tied the game for the Niners against the Falcons. San Francisco is better off with this game in the hands of Colin Kaepernick than on the foot of David Akers.