As Ravens QB Joe Flacco has taken his game to new heights this postseason, a number of factors have contributed to his success.
His comfort level appears to have increased greatly with interim offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell calling plays.
There hasn't been a more dominant wideout in the postseason than Anquan Boldin.
Perhaps the greatest contributor to Flacco's incredible surge, though, has been the near-perfect play of his offensive line, which, despite having all five members start together for the first time in the postseason, have allowed just four sacks of Flacco on 99 dropbacks.
The spotlight Sunday will be on the left side of the Baltimore front wall, where veteran OLT Bryant McKinnie and rookie OLG Kelechi Osemele draw the assignment of slowing down the Niners' sensational Smith tandem, RDE Justin Smith and WOLB Aldon Smith.
McKinnie went from head coach John Harbaugh's doghouse for most of the season to the principal protector of Flacco's blind side in Week 17, and he has been terrific ever since. Osemele started all 16 regular-season games at right tackle, before sliding to left guard for the postseason after an injury to Jah Reid, showing impressive versatility, especially for a rookie.
Cohesion, arguably the most important trait of any successful offensive line, has been remarkable for the Ravens' group, despite all of the shuffling. But McKinnie and Osemele will have to be in total lockstep Sunday as they attempt to slow down the Smiths.
There might not be an end-outside ‘backer pairing in the NFL that works in unison quite like the tandem in San Francisco. One of the premier interior defenders of our generation, Justin Smith's great strength and relentlessness often requires double teams, which leaves Aldon Smith in favorable one-one-one matchups. The latter Smith has far too much explosion and leverage off the edge to be contained by just one blocker.
Opponents can't just pick their poison, either.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's frequent and effective use of of stunts, twists and games with the dynamic "Smith brothers" makes slowing this pair down that much tougher. It also makes the onus on McKinnie and Osemele playing extremely sound, disciplined, assignment football that much greater.
Communication between McKinnie and Osemele will be especially key, in order to avoid letting either Smith get a free run at Flacco from a stunt or straight up bull/speed rush.
23-year old Aldon Smith, after collecting 19½ sacks in the first 13 games, has not brought down an opposing QB in the past five. That drought coincides with Justin Smith's torn triceps – which will require surgery after the season – sustained in Week 15 against New England.
The good news for Niners fans – and troubling for the Ravens – is that the elder Smith has made progress from the injury in the postseason. He is still dealing with extreme pain, at times playing with one arm, but he has had an impact in the postseason, even if his numbers appear pedestrian. Further, no player in the Super Bowl should benefit more from two full weeks off leading up to Super Sunday than Justin Smith.
Aldon Smith has found other ways to leave his imprint on games of late without tallying sacks. He had a critical fumble recovery that helped propel San Francisco to come from behind in the second half against the Falcons in the NFC Title game, and he forced a fumble in the divisional round against Green Bay.
The Smiths spend much of their time on the weak side of the defense, and running at Justin is normally a losing proposition. But Baltimore, which will work hard to establish the ground game, will take any opportunity it can to run right at the younger Smith if he is isolated on the opposite side.
In the end, though, the Ravens will likely need another sterling effort from Flacco in order to leave the Superdome as Super Bowl champions. Baltimore's bread and butter offensively is the deep passing game, which requires time for Flacco to drop back and his receivers to get downfield in vertical routes.
The Smiths have the ability to feast on a slow-developing passing game. Can McKinnie and Osemele keep them at bay long enough to afford Flacco the same protection he has thrived with throughout the postseason? The answer to that question will go a long way towards determining who will have the biggest party in the Big Easy Sunday night.