NEW ORLEANS -- Here is what San Franciso has to do to beat Baltimore on Sunday in Super XLVII.
1. Don't give up the deep ball.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has been terrific in the playoffs, throwing eight touchdowns and no interceptions. When he's on, he's really on, but when he's off, he really struggles. Flacco completed fewer than half of his passes in an ugly 9-6 win against Kansas City, a 43-13 loss to Houston and a 23-20 loss at home to Pittsburgh, something San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick has not done in any of his nine starts. Flacco thrives on big plays. If he can't connect down the field to Torrey Smith or Dennis Pitta, he tends to start pressing. If the 49ers turn him into a dink-and-dunker, Flacco's not patient enough and the 49ers are too good a tackling team to lose.
2. Give it to Gore.
As well as Kaepernick has played, he is not ready to wing it all over the field in a big game, and he won't have to if running back Frank Gore gets the ball frequently. That plan worked in the playoffs, where Gore had 209 yards on 44 carries as Kaepernick threw 31 passes against Green Bay and an even more manageable 21 against Atlanta. Baltimore is decent against the run (regular-season opponents averaged 4.0 yards, 3.9 in the playoffs), but the last time it faced a read-option team, Washington's Alfred Morris gained 129 yards on 23 attempts. If Ray Lewis is making tackles five and six yards downfield, the Ravens won't win.
3. Don't kick field goals.
When the 49ers are in scoring range, they better convert their third-down opportunities because they can't rely on kicker David Akers. No matter how many times coach Jim Harbaugh predicts good things for Akers in the Super Bowl, you know he can't possibly trust Akers after his dismal second half of the season. Heck, with Kaepernick's running ability, the 49ers should consider going for the first down on all fourth-and-short situations between the Ravens' 40- and 20-yard lines. San Francisco was 8 for 12 on fourth-down conversions in the regular season, a better success rate than Akers has managed in the last 15 games.
4. Have faith in Kaepernick.
Harbaugh demonstrated the ultimate faith in Kaepernick by benching Alex Smith for him permanently after nine games. A coach worried about a backlash never would have made that move because Smith was having the best year of his career statistically and had taken the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game last season. But Harbaugh knew Smith's ceiling was much lower than Kaepernick's. He saw it in the 2011 NFC Championship Game against the Giants, when Smith went 12 of 26. He saw it again vs. the Vikings and Giants this year, when Smith threw four interceptions and produced 16 points in eight quarters. Kaepernick isn't always sharp, but he recovers from mistakes much better than Smith. If he goofs up like he did on his first pass against Green Bay in the NFC divisional playoffs, now is no time to pull in the reigns. He'll make up for it.
5. Hit someone.
For 31 ½ games under Harbaugh, the 49ers had the NFL's best tackling, most intimidating defense. Then DE Justin Smith went out with a triceps injury in the third quarter against New England on Dec. 16, and San Francisco has not been the same since. The Patriots scored 34 points in the second half, Seattle 28 points in the first half the following week and Atlanta had almost 500 yards of offense in the NFC Championship Game. The drop-off can't be attributed completely to Smith, who returned for the playoffs. It was a team-wide issue, but the 49ers have the same terrific personnel. Safety Donte Whitner set the tone in last year's playoffs with a vicious hit that knocked New Orleans running back Pierre Thomas senseless and forced a fumble. A similar shot early in the Super Bowl will send a message.