This time, it will be different.
That’s the mantra the Baltimore Ravens and 49ers must carry into Sunday’s conference championships.
One step from the Super Bowl once more, the Ravens and 49ers believe they’ve found that extra element for success. For San Francisco, it might be the versatility and big-play potential Colin Kaepernick brings to the offense. For Baltimore, it could be the ramped-up emotions from Ray Lewis’ pending retirement.
The oddsmakers believe the Niners have what they need to beat the Atlanta Falcons one year after an overtime loss to the New York Giants in the NFC title game; San Francisco is favored by 4½ points at Atlanta. That says a lot.
But the bookies don’t believe the Ravens will do any better than in last year’s AFC championship, when they fell at Foxborough, Mass., 23-20. Baltimore is a 9½-point underdog to the New England Patriots.
“There are challenges that get you to the point that you are at as a football team and make you who you are, even as a person,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, whose team needed a last-minute 70-yard touchdown pass to force overtime at Denver on Saturday before beating the top-seeded Broncos. “And, our guys have handled all those things extremely well. Individually, a lot of our guys — and collectively — have come out of it stronger and better men, and we’re a stronger and better team.”
His younger brother, Jim, head man of the 49ers — siblings have never met as head coaches in the Super Bowl — has guided San Francisco to the NFL’s final four in both of his seasons. This is John Harbaugh’s third conference title game in five years in charge.
The 49ers’ Harbaugh sees the togetherness and developing maturity of his team as a reason it could reach the franchise’s first Super Bowl since winning its fifth in 1995.
“We want to be about that,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s attributed to anything, I think it’s just who we are as a team, who our players are. It’s a talent and it’s character. I’ve always thought that about our team.”
Who the Niners are is quite different this time around. Last season, they used a shutdown defense, strong special teams and a conservative, avoid-mistakes offense to get this far. But quarterback Alex Smith and that offense bogged down too often against the Giants.
The big changes? The emergence of receiver Michael Crabtree, the solidification of the offensive line, and, of course, Kaepernick.
As he showed in setting a playoff record for QBs with 181 yards rushing, and throwing for 243 in the divisional round against Green Bay — his playoff debut, no less — Kaepernick is a game-breaker.
“There are some quarterback-driven runs that have been added because our quarterbacks are very good at those, and Colin especially,” Jim Harbaugh said. “It’s already noted that he’s very fast. He’s very good at reading and executing that type of offense. So, that’s the reason.”
And a main reason the people in the Bay Area believe this is the 49ers’ year.