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Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice (27) works against Indianapolis Colts during first half an NFL wild card playoff football

Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice (27) works against the Indianapolis Colts during the first half of an NFL wild card playoff football game Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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SUN-TIMES STAFF PREDICTIONS

RICK MORRISSEY: 30-27 49ERS

RICK TELANDER: 24-20 RAVENS

DAN McGRATH: 31-23 49ERS

SEAN JENSEN: 34-30 49ERS

ADAM L. JAHNS: 31-27 RAVENS

MARK POTASH: 23-17 49ERS

Updated: February 2, 2013 6:43PM



RAVENS vs. 49ERS

Time: 5:30 p.m. Sunday.

Site: Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.

TV: Ch. 2 (Jim Nantz, Phil Simms).

Radio: 670-AM.

Line: 49ers by 4.

Total: 47 1/2.

WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL

ON THE GROUND

If there is a predominant key to the game, it’s likely going to be the Ravens’ improving rushing game with Pro Bowl RB Ray Rice (1,143 yards, 4.4 avg., 9 TDs) and rookie Bernard Pierce (381 yards, 6.0 avg. in the Ravens’ last five games) vs. a 49ers run defense that ranked fourth in the NFL in the regular season but has been vulnerable in the playoffs. The Ravens are averaging 175 rushing yards in their last five games, and that’s with an O-line that was shuffled at the end of the regular season. The 49ers can stop Rice if they want to. The only unknown is what the cost will be in the air.

IN THE AIR

With a boost from the Broncos’ secondary, Joe Flacco has been at his best in the postseason, with 8 TDs, zero INTs and ratings of 125.6, 116.2 and 106.2. WRs Anquan Boldin (16-276, 17.3 avg., 3 TDs in the playoffs) and Torrey Smith (9-198, 22.0, 2 TDs) have made Flacco as much as he’s made them. Flacco’s masterful touch on the deep ball will test a 49ers defense that was burned for 271 passing yards by Matt Ryan in the first half of the NFC title game and will be trying to stop the run first. But the 49ers’ pass rush will be a bigger test of whether Flacco truly has reached a new level.

KEY MATCHUP

Ravens FB Vonta Leach vs. 49ers LB Patrick Willis

Willis is a six-time Pro Bowler who can single-handedly thwart even a top-notch running game. But Leach, a three-time Pro Bowl FB in the mold of Lorenzo Neal, presents a different kind of challenge that could test Willis, at least early.

WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL

ON THE GROUND

With Pro Bowl RB Frank Gore (1,214 yards, 4.7 avg., 8 TDs in the regular season) running behind one of the best offensive lines in football, the 49ers are one of the few teams that can run effectively against any defense. They have rushed for 80 yards or more in every game this season. The presence of QB Colin Kaepernick (81-617, 7.6 avg., 7 TDs through the playoffs) adds to the difficulty for the Ravens, who ranked 20th against the run this season — their lowest NFL ranking in the Ray Lewis era. But the tricky part will be figuring out just how the 49ers plan on attacking on the ground.

IN THE AIR

As the Bears painfully discovered, one of Kaepernick’s biggest advantages is that opponents don’t get a true indication of his speed or arm strength until they see him in person (the only time Kaepernick faced a team for a second time this season, the 49ers scored 13 points in an OT loss to the Rams). So the Ravens really don’t know what they’re up against. When the Ravens played Robert Griffin III, the Redskins gained 163 yards on 18 plays and scored 2 TDs on their first 2 possessions in a 31-28 loss. The Ravens thrive on mistakes, but the 49ers threw an NFL-low 8 INTs this season.

KEY MATCHUP

Ravens DE Paul Kruger vs. 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick

It’s all about containment. ‘‘We’re going to have to keep [Kaepernick] inside our defense,’’ Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. That’s the responsibility first of Ravens DE Kruger and OLB Terrell Suggs. It’s not easy if you haven’t done it.

SPECIAL TEAMS

David Akers, the 49ers’ PK, is a six-time Pro Bowler with Super Bowl experience. But he’s on the spot entering this game, having missed 8 of his last 20 FG attempts, including a 38-yarder in the NFC title game. Ravens PK Justin Tucker is 30-for-33 at FGs, including 4-for-4 from 50 yards or longer. Both teams are otherwise solid on special teams. The Ravens’ Jacoby Jones has 3 kick-return TDs this season (2 KOs, 1 punt). But Ted Ginn can’t be overlooked

X-FACTOR

The 49ers are the better team, with a QB and a coach who appear to be immune to the magnitude of the moment. But this is still the Super Bowl, where — figuratively, anyway — all bets are off. Kaepernick was cool in the face of adversity against the Falcons. Will he respond the same way on the biggest stage in American sports? Will the experience of Ed Reed and Ray Lewis give the Ravens a much-needed edge? It’s the Super Bowl. One turnover can change everything.



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