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Early look at the 49ers

Twelve years after hoisting the Lombardi Trophy following their win in Super Bowl XXXV, the Baltimore Ravens are back on the NFL's biggest stage.

The team that just more than a month ago was mired in a three-game losing streak is now just a win over the San Francisco 49ers away from the second Super Bowl title in franchise history.

Here's an early look at the 49ers:

Offense

Not to say the 49ers' offense wasn't dangerous with Alex Smith under center, but it's just a different, more explosive, more dynamic unit with Colin Kaepernick. Smith was serviceable. He was solid. He was efficient and didn't make many ill-advised decisions. But Kaepernick's just an athletic, physically gifted, multi-dimensional threat that's invigorated San Francisco's offense ever since he made his first start in place of an injured Smith in mid-November. And a unit that was limited to just five touchdowns in the 13-plus quarters prior to Kaepernick taking over has posted 27 points or more in seven of the nine games that Kaepernick's started. Kaepernick's hurt teams as a passer - he's thrown for 221 yards or more in seven of his nine games as a starter - but it's his speed and ability as a runner that's really provided an added dimension to the 49ers' offense. He ran for 66 yards and a touchdown against the St. Louis Rams in mid-November, ran for 84 yards during a second meeting with the Rams three weeks later, ran for 53 yards and a score amid a December win against the Miami Dolphins and gashed the Green Bay Packers for 181 yards and two touchdowns during San Francisco's 45-31 divisional round win over the Packers.

But it's not just Kaepernick. Running back Frank Gore is a four-time Pro Bowler who rushed for 1,217 yards and seven touchdowns during the regular season and 209 yards and three scores in two playoff games. Tight end Vernon Davis is a former Pro Bowler who had five catches for 106 yards and a touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons this past weekend. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree has 93 yards or more in five of the last seven games and six touchdowns during that seven game span. There's an older but still dangerous Randy Moss. Another athletic and talented tight end in Delanie Walker. Two speedy and elusive running backs that complement Gore in Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James. And there's the offensive line that's widely regarded by many as one of the best, if not the best in the NFL.

It's a talented group.

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Defense

The vaunted 49ers' defense has actually struggled some in the playoffs, but this is a group armed with five Pro Bowlers who ranked among the best in the NFL in nearly every major defensive category during the regular season. San Francisco ranked second in the NFL in scoring defense, third in total defense and fourth against both the run and the pass. Pro Bowl inside linebackers Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman combined for 269 tackles during the regular season and spearhead a run defense that limited opposing ball carriers to just 3.7 yards per carry prior to the playoffs. Aldon Smith is one of the league's top pass rushers and had 19½ sacks during the regular season. Fellow outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks added 6½. Justin Smith is a Pro Bowler at defensive end and Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson are both Pro Bowlers at safety. The 49ers limited opponents to 13 points or less in seven of their final 13 regular season games, including seven points or less in five of those games.

But San Francisco's defense has looked vulnerable at times during the course of the last month and a half. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw for 443 yards during a 41-34 loss to the 49ers in Week 15. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw for four touchdowns in a 42-13 win over San Francisco a week later, a game during which the Seahawks accumulated 176 yards on the ground. And the 49ers' defense has now allowed 829 yards and 55 points in two playoff games. Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw for 396 yards and three touchdowns during the Falcons' dramatic 28-24 NFC championship loss to San Francisco this past weekend.

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