(RNN) – The story of the Super Bowl may be the one about the quarterback who shocked everyone with his exemplary play and led a team to the championship.
No, not Colin Kaepernick – the other one.
Lost among the narratives of "Harbaugh Bowl," Ray Lewis retiring, deer antler sprays and the 49ers-former-backup-QB-turned-star has been the Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco. The fifth-year signal caller put together three spectacular playoff games to get the Ravens to New Orleans, throwing for 853 yards with eight touchdowns and zero interceptions.
It was the type of run Flacco could never put together before.
Baltimore has seen its share of success since he took over the position, but much of it came on the back of a strong defense while the QB's play seemed above-average, at best.
During the 2012 season, many of Baltimore's defensive stars fell prey to injuries, father time or both, requiring the offense to take the lead. Flacco answered the call when it mattered, and his finest moment came with his team on the brink of elimination.
The Ravens trailed the Denver Broncos by seven with one minute remaining and no timeouts left in the divisional round matchup. Then Flacco threw a pigskin-covered missile 50-plus yards through the air and connected with receiver Jacoby Jones for a game-tying touchdown, sending them to overtime and an eventual win.
To this point, the embattled quarterback's career trajectory looks a lot like Eli Manning's, minus the All-Pro big brother.
Both were first-round draft picks and struggled with the high expectations that come with that. Each dealt with the same barrage of questions about their accuracy, their leadership and their ability to come through at the end of a close game.
Through five seasons, neither had reached the 4,000-yard or 30-touchdown benchmarks in a season. Both were the same age, 28, in their first Super Bowl.
Manning quieted his detractors by coming through on a Lombardi Trophy-winning drive in 2009. It may take something along those lines to quiet the critics of Baltimore's QB, too.
Yet if his Super Bowl performance is anything like his last three games – and the Ravens win – Flacco will leave little room for argument he is among the best in the league.
San Francisco has the defense in place that can win a game (maybe even a championship) single-handed. Linebackers Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith lead a team that are among the NFL's best in stopping the run and keeping the opposition out of the end zone.
Their offense used to rely on that defense, employing a run-heavy, conservative style of play to cut down on turnovers and run the clock. But with Kaepernick behind center, the 49ers became a dynamic team that could engage in a high-scoring shootout as well.
The second-year pro showed his abilities as a passer and a runner after starter Alex Smith went out with a concussion in the sixth game of the season. Kaepernick's play was so good that head coach Jim Harbaugh stuck with him even when Smith got clearance to play.
The young gunslinger rewarded his coach by leading the team to a 5-2 record to close the regular season.
In his first playoff game, he set the NFL playoff QB rushing record with 181 yards on the ground and tallied 263 more through the air. Then he led a Niners comeback from a 17-0 deficit against the Atlanta Falcons to win the NFC Championship.
On Sunday, the AFC champions will counter with a combination of a balanced offense and a veteran defense that likes to outmatch its opponent with pure, unadulterated intensity.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh – the big brother of the 49ers coach; has anyone mentioned that yet? – will look to Ray Lewis to lead the defense emotionally and on the field. Prior to the team's playoff run, Lewis announced it would be his final NFL season.
The middle linebacker etched out a 17-year career in Baltimore, becoming arguably the best ever at his position. However, the renewed spotlight on Lewis has brought back questions about a 2000 murder case he was implicated in, as well as new allegations of performance-enhancing drug use.
On offense, Flacco will supplement the passing game by handing the ball off to a pair of running backs. Ray Rice has been the Ravens' main guy for four years, but appeared to lose some of his burst at the end of the season.
He and rookie Bernard Pierce may have more of a timeshare in the backfield after the backup looked strong in the AFC Championship against the New England Patriots.
Prediction: Oddsmakers have San Francisco favored by four or five points, as they look like the superior team on both sides of the ball. However, the team relies on a guy making only his 10th start at quarterback.
Another factor that could go against the 49ers is their field goal kicker. David Akers has been shaky this season, and three points could make a big difference.
Meanwhile, the elder statesmen on the Ravens D (Lewis, safety Ed Reed, defensive end Terrell Suggs) should be at their best after an extra week to rest. And even when Flacco is not at the top of his game, he is not prone to throwing a lot of interceptions.
In a close game that hinges on one or two mistakes, the Ravens take advantage of a turnover and avoid making their own. Final score: Baltimore 24, San Francisco 20.
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