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Shorts and Shells: Conference championships

Ravens, 49ers won by being who they are

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By Eric Edholm

You can marvel at the Ravens and 49ers for a million reasons today.

They are tough, they are rugged, and they are resourceful. Both teams went on the road in tough environments, and they each blanked their opponents in the second half — and aggregate 35-0 second-half edge for the road warriors.

You can love or hate the Harbaughs, Ray Lewis, Joe Flacco, Colin Kaepernick — certainly a cast of interesting and, um, different personalities in that group.

But you just can’t deny what’s so great about these teams and so great in the way they won the conference championships. They won those games and got to this place because of one underlying truth: They know who they are and they aren’t changing.

Not for you, not for opponents. They are, to put it best, unyielding.

The 49ers found themselves in a dark hole: down 17-0, Georgia Dome drowned out by din, and having nothing working yet offensively. So they did what they have done from the start of so many games: mash a few faces with basic power runs. Nothing is more impressive than watching a team line up, square off and go straight ahead four straight times.

Perhaps they were giving their defense a break after being outgained 145 to minus-2 on the first two series. Maybe they wanted to settle Colin Kaepernick down, although he certainly didn’t look frazzled. Or maybe they just wanted to do what they did best.

Frank Gore for nine yards. Gore for one. Daniel Kilgore on as an extra blocker, Gore for three. Then Gore for seven. First and 10 from the 40 is worlds better than from your own 20.

Then it was Kaepernick for four throws: To Randy Moss for eight. To Michael Crabtree for seven. Crabtree again for four. Four more on a throw to LaMichael James.

The Falcons suddenly were on their heels. After a penalty, it was two more Kaepernick throws, one of them good for 27 yards to Vernon Davis, who caught the first of five big receptions. Then the 49ers took advantage of an overplaying Falcons defense, as John Abraham focused on Kaepernick on the option read and James scooted in from 15 yards out.

Before you knew it, the game was 17-7. Defensively, the next series, they remained the 49ers. No panicking, no wanton blitzing. That’s not who they were and not who they ever will be with Vic Fangio calling the show. They rush four most times and physically wear you down. Same thing on offense — short, precise passes and power runs to set up the vertical stuff. Very little four and five wides. Down three scores, you could almost hear Jim Harbaugh think, “Change now? Why?”

They didn’t. And the Ravens didn’t either. They stayed true to their selves defensively, knowing they had Tom Brady’s number (2-2 in last four meetings, with four TDs and seven INTs heading in) and that they were the tougher team in the trenches. They stuck with their game plan of keeping it straight early and then picking things up offensively in the second half. They are an attack offense, despite what their reputation would have us believe.

Flacco is not beloved. And really, before Sunday he was not roundly respected, either. On the surface, he certainly has his warts, and you can see where his seemingly outsized confidence could throw fans and observers off alike. But he’s confident — or cocky, take your pick — because he believes in himself. He believes that Torrey Smith will come down with that deep ball just as much as he trusts that Ray Rice somehow will squirrel his way through traffic on a screen to gain that unlikely first down.

The Ravens’ defense was on the field 90 plays against the Colts, 94 more in frigid Denver and another 83 at Foxborough. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed played all 267. Corey Graham sat for one snap and Bernard Pollard sat for two. Cary Williams for three. Do these guys need rest ever? Whether or not, they’ll get it — a well-deserved week before HarBowl week begins.

Clearly, these teams take after their coaches. There might not be two teams more ingrained into their head coaches’ personas than these. They love playing for Jim and John, and it shows. They want to show them how tough they are. They want to earn their respect.

Kaepernick appears to be a runaway train. Flacco is bent on earning a seat at the elite table. Lewis is on some kind of crusade. Frank Gore is running like a man possessed. So what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immoveable object? We’ll find out in less than two weeks to SB47. One team will win, one will lose, but you can bet on both going down playing exactly the brand of football that has become a component of their DNA.

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