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Balanced 49ers offense aims to lead Super Bowl win

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Balanced 49ers offense aims to lead Super Bowl win

NEW ORLEANS (AP) Colin Kaepernick is a mystery man under center, a strong-armed passer one moment and a 25-year-old kid who can run right out of the pocket for a huge gain the next.

Baltimore must brace for the unexpected on every snap in Sunday's Super Bowl.

There's flashy Michael Crabtree on the edges and Vernon Davis down the middle, Frank Gore and LaMichael James clogging things up in the running game.

The creative, switch-it-up San Francisco offense sure keeps opposing defenses guessing. The 49ers hope to do it again at the Superdome, when the Ravens will face an array of looks from Jim Harbaugh's team.

``With Kaepernick, it's like pick your poison,'' Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice said. ``Are you going to try to shut down that pistol and not let him get outside, where you've got Frank Gore and LaMichael James going downhill? Then, Crabtree and Vernon Davis on the outside. I think the secondary of Baltimore, right there in the middle, is where they're going to get exposed. ... If you double team Crabtree, it's going to be Vernon Davis. If you get Crabtree one on one - for some reason he's playing with a swagger right now that's unbelievable.''

Kaepernick has shown two drastically different styles in two postseason games. What he'll show the Ravens is anybody's guess.

In a 45-31 rout of the Packers in the divisional round, Kaepernick ran for a quarterback playoff record 181 yards and two touchdowns and also threw for 263 yards with two TD passes to Michael Crabtree.

A week later at Atlanta, everything looked different in a 28-24 win that sent San Francisco to its first Super Bowl in 18 years.

Kaepernick only ran the ball twice, instead handing off to his go-to guy, Gore, and the Niners rallied from a 17-0 deficit for the biggest comeback in an NFC championship game.

``He's very good, he's very accurate,'' Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said of Kaepernick. ``They've done a great job with putting him into a system and building a system to make him successful, but to be able to throw the ball deep you have to have guys that can run deep. Crabtree and Vernon Davis and Randy Moss can run deep.''

And Gore can grind out yards.

Gore, coming off his franchise-record sixth 1,000-yard rushing season, ran for second-half touchdowns of 5 and 9 yards in the comeback in his first career postseason performance with two TDs against the Falcons. He has three touchdowns and 209 yards rushing during this postseason run.

A balanced offense, indeed.

``There's a lot,'' Crabtree said. ``I could go on talking about the talent that we have around here. On the tight ends, running backs, you have to remember we have three people injured that played a major part in our offense. But I would say that with all of these weapons, I don't think that you can go wrong.''

After a quiet year in which he faced double-teams and constant attention by defenses, Davis broke out at Atlanta with five catches for 106 yards with a 4-yard TD grab.

``He does it all. He's a beast,'' Ravens safety Ed Reed said. ``He's one of those guys that you all say has it. He catches touchdowns, he's blocking. I'm surprised they haven't ran him yet, handing him the ball, but he's somebody you really have to know where he is at all times and be mindful of what he's doing, because they give him the ball, for one. You have to give him the ball. Why wouldn't you? But whoever is covering him, whether it's me, (safety) Bernard (Pollard), or anybody on our team covering him, you have to be really mindful of where he's at.''

Crabtree had six catches against the Falcons and Randy Moss - who this week proclaimed himself ``the greatest receiver ever to play this game'' only to have Hall of Famer Jerry Rice beg to differ - made three.

San Francisco's offensive line will have to do a better job than in a 16-6 loss at Baltimore on Thanksgiving night 2011, when the unit allowed the Ravens to match a franchise record with nine sacks.

``We've seen enough film to kind of know what to expect, unless they come up with something different,'' center Jonathan Goodwin said. ``But definitely a talented group up front, and that's what makes them a good defense. They try to do some things to confuse you.''

If Crabtree and Kaepernick can pull off another outstanding outing in the game of their lives, they'll take the podium together again for an entertaining back and forth of compliments and good-natured ribbing.

After one game, they held a joint postgame news conference.

All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis, a member of San Francisco's stingy, run-stopping defense, regularly offers a pat on the back and hug to Kaepernick.

``In a close game, we would win because our defense doesn't give up,'' Davis said. ``Our offense is always aggressive and eager to win.''

Hoisting the Lombardi Trophy is the plan now. In the Niners' rooting section: Rice, Roger Craig, Joe Montana and Steve Young.

The current 49ers are fully aware of the history, most notably a perfect Super Bowl record that they must protect. San Francisco is 5-0 in championship games and trying to match the Pittsburgh Steelers for most ever.

``This is incredible, man,' Davis said. ``Just being a part of this franchise is legendary - Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, Steve Young - and to be able to bring a ring back, that's something that you can cherish for the rest of your life.''

PREDICTION: 49ers 31, Ravens 27.

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How the Ravens will try to slow down the NFL’s best offense in Kansas City

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How the Ravens will try to slow down the NFL’s best offense in Kansas City

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens have got a big problem on their hands. Or, more accurately, they’ve got a bunch of problems to deal with.

The Kansas City Chiefs have, since the beginning of last season, been the NFL’s best offense. With reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, all-pro Travis Kelce at tight end and a seemingly replenishing stable of speedster wide receivers, the offense has been nearly unstoppable.

They’ve scored 34 points per game this year. Mahomes has passed for 821 yards and as a team, they’ve averaged 479 yards each week. 

Now it’s the Ravens turns to get a chance at stopping, or at least slowing down, the NFL’s most vaunted attack.

“World-class tight end, world-class sprinters out there at wide receiver,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale said. “Obviously you’re talking about an offense that averages over 35 points per game last year. It doesn’t look like there’s any drop-off from last year. It’s going to be a great challenge for us.”

The man leading it all, Mahomes, is perhaps the league’s most talented quarterback. He won MVP last season after throwing for 5,097 yards, 50 touchdowns, and just 12 interceptions. 

This season, he’s already ushered in discussions that he could throw for 6,000 yards and 60 touchdowns, which would completely shatter the NFL’s previous records. In his third season, he’s already one of the league’s most feared players.

“You have to play to the whistle,” cornerback Brandon Carr said. “He’s a guy that can extend the play – smart guy, big arm, strong arm. They have a lot of different movements and gadgets and a lot of different things going on with their offense, so you have to have disciplined eye control, 100 percent communication and just play as a unit for 60 minutes.”

One of Mahomes most dangerous traits, however, is his ability to throw the ball on the run. With a cannon for an arm, Mahomes is just as dangerous throwing across the field while scrambling as he is while he’s stationary in the pocket. 

In last year’s thrilling Week 14 game, a 27-24 Ravens loss, Mahomes threw his first no-look pass, which caught the eye of the NFL and was one of the highlights of his stellar season. 

Later in the game, with the Ravens up by seven, Mahomes and his offense were faced with a fourth and nine. After Mahomes took the snap, the play broke down and he had to scramble to his right. On the move to his right, he threw the ball across the field nearly 40 yards in the air to Tyreek Hill, who took the ball into the red zone. 

Multiple Ravens players and coaches said they still think about that play and game, even into this season.

“You keep him in the pocket as much as you can,” coach John Harbaugh said. “You make him throw under pressure as much as you can. You cover the guys as well as you can. Then, you play football. That’s what you try to do. If he throws one up down the middle again, hopefully, we’ll get it this time.”

Mahomes’ arm strength is just one of his abilities as a passer, of which there are many. By far, however, that’s what can change a defense the most.

“The thing about Mahomes, is once he scrambles, he’s looking across the field, down the field, he’s not scared to make those type of throws,” safety Earl Thomas said. “Most quarterbacks won’t try that.”

It might be easier to handle Mahomes, however, if he didn’t have a team full out some of the best receiving weapons in the league. 

Unfortunately for the Ravens, he does. 

Even without Tyreek Hill, who is out with a shoulder injury, the Chiefs have been able to replace him with a host of other speedy receivers that both the Jaguars and Raiders weren’t able to figure out.

“Hill runs about a 4.21 40, (and) they put in a guy that runs about a 4.22 40,” Martindale quipped. “They’re fast.”

Sammy Watkins leads the team in receiving with 247 yards and three touchdowns, but the rest of the wideouts are loaded with speed, too. Demarcus Robinson has 172 yards and two touchdowns, while Mecole Hardman has 61 yards (albeit on four receptions) but is as speedy as ever. 

Then, at tight end, Kansas City has perhaps the game’s best tight end in Kelce. He’s got 195 yards and a touchdown this season. 

The receivers and their speed are one thing, but when they can take the top off the defense only to have Kelce under the middle, the Chiefs present a world of problems for opposing defenses.

“He’s just going to be hard to cover,” Harbaugh said of Kelce. “I don’t care what you do, how you cover him, how many guys you put on him – he’s going to be a challenge to cover. You don’t really expect to shut him out. We’re going to try to keep the batting average down just a little bit. I’m sure we’ll throw some different things at him.”

The man calling the shots is Andy Reid, one of the most respected and creative offensive minds to ever stand on the sidelines in the NFL. 

The Chiefs can hurt you through the air and even on the ground. Running back LeSean McCoy has averaged five yards a carry over 20 carries this season, too.

Even with left tackle Eric Fisher out with an injury, it’s hard to find a significant weak part of the offense. And that includes behind the white lines.

“Andy Reid, to me, we’re talking about all these young and innovate offensive coordinators, he’s the grandfather,” Martindale said. “He’s the OG of the innovators of offense. The offense he has in Kansas City, everybody steals from. He’s the king of the RPO, he’s the king of the shots, he’s the king of the screens. I think we’re just the men for the job, but it’s a tough out.”

The Ravens think they can be that out for the Chiefs. They added Earl Thomas in the secondary in the offseason, and even with Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young sidelined, still boast one of the top units in the NFL.

And not only are the Ravens prepared to stop the Chiefs explosive offense, they’re confident, too.

“Luckily, the Ravens have me playing free safety, controlling the deep end,” Thomas said. “I plan on eliminating all the big plays.”

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Ravens prepare to head to Kansas City with last year’s gut-punch still in mind

Ravens prepare to head to Kansas City with last year’s gut-punch still in mind

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Lamar Jackson remembers last year’s trip to Kansas City. He doesn’t want to. 

In a 27-24 overtime defeat, Jackson suffered the only regular season loss of his career. The two teams never played again, as the Ravens lost in the Wild Card round to the Chargers. 

There’s been significant changes for both teams since then, but Jackson hasn’t forgotten the feeling he left Kansas City with. 

“It’s still with me right now,” Jackson explained. “It doesn’t go away until I get that opportunity again and perform very well.”

Last year, Jackson was in his fourth start in the NFL when the Ravens went into Arrowhead Stadium and nearly knocked off the AFC’s top seed. 

This year, the Ravens have no good feelings about how that game went, despite the development that aided a young roster. 

“That was a big-time game, kind of a nail-biter game,” Mark Andrews said. “A lot of guys kind of grew up in that game. I think Lamar [Jackson] being able to play a tight game like that was big for his growth. It’s one of those games that I don’t think a lot of people have forgotten to this day.”

As for changes that can be taken from the game, there’s not much benefit to that. 

The Chiefs have multiple new starters on their defense compared to last year and a new defensive coordinator. Tyreek Hill won’t be in this year’s iteration of the game due to a shoulder injury, but they’ve replaced him with other incredibly talented and speedy wideouts. 

And there’s reason to believe that, at least through two weeks, Patrick Mahomes might even be better than he was a year ago.

“Our guys have been in the stadium,” coach John Harbaugh said. “They’ve been in that tiny little locker room before. They’ve been on that field. They’ve stayed in that hotel. All of those things are pluses. We played a good game, but we didn’t win. That’s motivation also.”

Last season’s loss wasn’t just a typical loss, either. 

Baltimore entered at 7-5 and were in a chase for a playoff spot. And with just under five minutes left, its chances looked good. 

But Mahomes completed a long, incredible pass on fourth and nine from the his own territory to set the Chiefs up with first down. A few plays later, on another fourth down, the Chiefs converted to tie the game at 24. They later won in overtime 27-24.

Some Ravens won’t admit it, but there’s lessons to be learned in that loss. 

“I think when you’re a young player and you’re in that environment — that hostile, on the road environment — … Kansas City has a great home crowd and they’re extremely loud,” Marshal Yanda said. “So yes, I think that those loud games for young players are important. He should be able to build from that.”

Sunday’s matchup, between two of the league’s top teams, has the potential to be one of the season’s top games once again. The Ravens will undoubtedly take lessons from last year’s wild finish in Kansas City.

They just hope it ends better than last time. 

“They’re a really good team and we want to perform our best,” Matt Skura said. “We know they went far in the playoffs last year and this year they obviously want to make a run. We want to show people that our offense, and our offensive line, can handle the so-called powerhouse of the Kansas City Chiefs. This is a huge game for us and we want to showcase our best abilities.”

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