NEW ORLEANS -- There has been no bigger brother vs. brother competition since the Civil War, yet the Super Bowl teams John Harbaugh coaches in Baltimore and Jim Harbaugh coaches in San Francisco have arrived at this point bearing no resemblance.
Baltimore, which has relied on its Fort McHenry-like defense since the Cleveland Browns changed cities, nicknames and colors in 1996, ranked just 17th in the NFL in yards given up. San Francisco, the first team to collect five Lombardi Trophies because of its slick offense behind Joe Montana, Jerry Rice et al., got here with a dominant defense, ranked third.
Both quarterbacks arrived from colleges out of the mainstream pipeline to the NFL but are as different as the San Francisco Bay and the Chesapeake Bay. Joe Flacco is a pure pocket quarterback with a big arm and a reputation that he could never win the big one. (Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley said in 2011 that Flacco appearing in a Super Bowl is "not gonna happen in this lifetime.") Colin Kaepernick also has a good arm but very little experience and feet that have not failed him while running something called the "pistol read option."
Each makes his first Super Bowl appearance. It took Flacco five years as a starting quarterback to get here, Kaepernick just half a season as a starter.
Both have been white hot in the postseason. Flacco delivered Baltimore's version of the Immaculate Reception when he heaved a 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones with 30 seconds left to send their playoff game in Denver into overtime. He has eight touchdowns, no interceptions and a 114.7 passer rating in three games.
"It's fun when it works," Flacco said of his deep throws. "We have guys that are really making some plays right now. Torrey Smith: he can stretch the field, Jacoby and Anquan [Boldin] with his strong hands. We've been successful with it and, hopefully, we can continue to do that."
Said Smith, "There are times where you see a throw and you're like, 'Wow, how did he fit it in that window?' He has a huge arm. He can make every throw, and I think people really underestimate that."
Kaepernick has thown just three TD passes and one interception in two postseason games. However, he ran for an NFL quarterback record 181 yards and two touchdowns to beat Green Bay in the 49ers' first playoff game. His passer rating also is high, 105.9, in the post-season.
"I think there is a lot of experience under my belt now," said Kaepernick, who did not start until the ninth game of this, his second season. "[I've had] a lot more time in the offense and on the game field."
Jim Harbaugh made a crucial decision at midseason when he replaced injured starter Alex Smith with the untested Kaepernick and then stuck with the youngster when Smith overcame a concussion. It was reminiscent of Bill Belichick going with sixth-round pick Tom Brady, like Kaepernick in his second season, when veteran Drew Bledsoe was injured in the second game of the 2001 season. Bledsoe recovered but he never got his job back, and the Patriots went on to win their first Super Bowl behind Brady.
The 49ers coach said he saw enough in that first start by Kaepernick to stick with him.
"What we all saw," Harbaugh explained. "Very good play, very poised beyond his years. He's continued that in every game that he's played."
Can he continue that play today is the question. Ben Roethlisberger also played phenomenal football in the playoffs in his second season. Then, in the Super Bowl, he laid an egg, although the Steelers still found a way to beat Seattle in Detroit in 2006.
Flacco's case also is unusual. It is rare indeed for a starting quarterback as accomplished as he is to be playing under the final year of his contract. Drew Brees did it in New Orleans, which kept him as a franchise player in 2012 and then signed him to a five-year, $100 million contract. The Ravens, who like the Steelers must confront some salary cap difficulties, could do the same with Flacco to prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent March 12. The Steelers' Neil O'Donnell and Baltimore's Trent Dilfer left their teams as free agents after starting in Super Bowls in 1996 and 2001, Dilfer as a victor.
The Ravens have made the playoffs in all five years that Flacco has been their quarterback.
"It's pretty cool," Flacco said. "It will mean a lot if we can go win this game. I think when you talk about winning as quarterbacks in the playoffs, I would think that all of them have Super Bowl victories, so that's really the only one that matters and that's what we're trying to get."
Kaepernick has been reminded often here about the two other quarterbacks who delivered those five Lombardi trophies to San Francisco: Joe Montana four, Steve Young one. Both are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"It's a great opportunity to get a win and to bring back the legacy to San Francisco that great teams and great quarterbacks have before," Kaepernick said. "There are great expectations in this franchise. We have had great quarterbacks and great Super Bowl teams. We want to be a part of that."
By the end of the day, one of them will be.
First Published February 3, 2013 5:00 AM