Jim Harbaugh encountered the “sharpest iron” he’s ever faced in the first iteration of the Harbowl on Thanksgiving last year.
The Niners entered the contest with a 9-1 record and an eight-game winning streak. It seemed like the NFL was quickly becoming the younger Harbaugh’s oyster. But John Harbaugh’s defense exposed his little brother’s team that night, limiting the offense to 170 yards and sacking Alex Smith nine times while keeping the Niners out of the red zone for the entire game.
“There’s a saying that says, ‘As iron sharpens iron, so does one man sharpen another,’” Jim Harbaugh said after the Baltimore Ravens suffocated his team 16-6. “And let’s say my brother, John, is the sharpest iron I’ve ever encountered.”
But when the teams reunite at the Superdome in New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII on Feb. 3, John Harbaugh will confront iron that’s paid a visit to the blacksmith since Turkey Day 2011.
Right now, the 49ers’ offense is almost unrecognizable from the unit the Ravens smothered in Baltimore last year. In two NFC playoff games, the 49ers amassed 952 total yards, averaging a whopping 7.56 yards per play.
Colin Kaepernick is the neutralizer the 49ers desperately needed in last season’s clash. If the Ravens repeatedly send the house again, they risk seeing Kaepernick stride downfield after he breaks free of the pocket with his explosive quickness.
With Kaepernick, the 49ers can also keep the Ravens’ defense on its toes by running the pistol offense. The read option forces linebackers to hesitate, which should slow down the bull rush at the line of scrimmage.
Jim Harbaugh can also stretch his brother’s defense with his passing attack this year. The 49ers’ passing offense was ranked 29th in the NFL last season, picking up 183.1 yards per game. But Michael Crabtree is now a bona fide threat and Kaepernick has the arm to sling it downfield to Vernon Davis or Delanie Walker if the linebackers cheat up to stop Frank Gore.
The Ravens, however, are still the sharpest iron that Jim Harbaugh’s faced in 36 NFL games.
In his two-year tenure, Jim Harbaugh’s outcoached Sean Payton, outmaneuvered Mike McCarthy twice and outfoxed Bill Belichick. But the chess game with his brother promises to be the most intense mind battle he’s ever encountered. John Harbaugh is the only coach who can really get into Jim Harbaugh’s head, think his thoughts, anticipate his next move.
And the elder Harbaugh is equipped with the most balanced team the 49ers have confronted. As usual, the Ravens are defined by their defense and Ray Lewis is back, determined to cap off his Hall of Fame career with another Super Bowl ring.
But the offense can’t be overlooked anymore. The Ravens can pound the ball with Ray Rice (1,143 yards, 4.4 yards per carry) and quarterback Joe Flacco proved he’s an elite quarterback, discarding Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in back-to-back weeks, while registering the NFL playoffs’ highest quarterback-efficiency rating (114.7).
Yes, this Super Harbowl is dripping with intrigue. Like most sibling rivalries, big brother grabbed the early upper hand. But eventually, the iron sharpens and little brother steps up and slays his Goliath. Will it be Jim’s turn to gloat on Super Bowl Sunday?
Paul Gackle is a regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner and also writes at www.gacklereport.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.