Super Bowl XLVII: The Defense
Love him or hate him, football fans will be watching Ray Lewis play for the final time at Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday when the Baltimore Ravens take on the San Francisco 49ers.
The Ravens inside linebacker has had one of the most impressive careers of any defensive player in NFL history. Though he has slowed a step or two over the years and missed time this season after tearing his triceps in October, his return at the start of the postseason heralded Baltimore's improved defensive play.
He didn't do it alone, of course. Having Lewis, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, linebacker Terrell Suggs and cornerback Lardarius Webb on the field at the same time for the playoffs makes the Ravens a different team.
The Niners haven't had trouble keeping their top defensive personnel on the field for the most part. Good thing, too, because their top players are some of the best in the league.
Linebackers Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman were first-team All-Pro selections this year, as was safety Dashon Goldson. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks and defensive lineman Justin Smith received second-team honors. Yes, all four of San Francisco's linebackers were All-Pros.
It's not all roses for the Niners. They're giving up more points per game than they did in 2011 (14.3 to 17.1). They are, however, holding teams to 14 less yards per game than they did a year ago. Those numbers still placed the team in the top three in both categories during the regular season.
If there's one player among the Ravens and Niners' 22 defensive starters who is capable of wrecking the other team's day on his own, it's San Francisco's Aldon Smith.
"I'm going to call Aldon a 'Megatron' type of guy on defense," teammate Justin Smith told Sports Illustrated, referring to top wide receiver Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions.
The 23-year-old Aldon Smith was far and away the 49ers' leader in sacks, accounting for 19.5 of the team's 38. He has been eerily quiet of late, without a sack since Week 14 of the regular season. That might just mean he's due to bust loose Sunday.
It's hard to say who the Ravens' most impactful player is right now since most of their elite talent has missed various lengths of time during the season.
Lewis, Suggs and safety Ed Reed are all former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award recipients, with Suggs the reigning award winner. Suggs was limited to eight regular season games in 2012.
Out with the old ...
The Niners have turned into one of the premier defensive units in the league. They're everything the Ravens were during the past decade.
If defense still wins championships, then the Niners should be favored to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.