Ravens-49ers matchup shows it’s dif­fi­cult to stay on top in the mod­ern NFL

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY JEFF ZRE­BIEC — Bal­ti­more Sun

On the evening of Feb. 3, 2013, the Bal­ti­more Ravens and San Fran­cisco 49ers met to de­cide NFL supremacy. Sun­day, the two teams play again, hop­ing to stave off 2015 ir­rel­e­vance.

Stay­ing on the NFL moun­tain­top has proved dif­fi­cult for both or­ga­ni­za­tions since Su­per Bowl XLVII. Re­tire­ments, free agent de­par­tures and in­juries have whit­tled away ta­lented and deep ros­ters. There have been off-field prob­lems and on-field de­fi­cien­cies. Af­ter en­gag­ing in a clas­sic shootout on the sport’s big­gest stage, the re­spec­tive fran­chise quar­ter­backs have buck­led while hav­ing to carry the weight of an en­tire or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“It feels so long ago,” Ravens quar­ter­back Joe Flacco said when asked about his team’s 34-31 vic­tory over the 49ers in the Su­per Bowl, the last time the teams met in a game of sig­nif­i­cance. “It’s dis­re­spect­ful to even talk about it, be­cause you have so many guys on this team that weren’t a part of it. They’re try­ing to be a part of some­thing great in the mo­ment, and I am, too.”

It has been a lit­tle more than 32 months since Flacco, the game’s most valu­able player, lifted the Lom­bardi Tro­phy sky­ward at the Mercedes-Benz Su­per­dome and the 49ers trudged through a sea of con­fetti and into a de­spon­dent locker room. Both teams, ig­nor­ing the volatil­ity of an NFL sea­son, vowed to get back. Nowa­days, they feel fur­ther away than ever be­fore.

Since that Su­per Bowl, the Ravens have a 19-18 reg­u­lar sea­son record and one play­off vic­tory.

The 49ers are 21-16 in that same span with two play­off wins and an NFC con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship berth in 2013. When they meet Sun­day at Levi’s Sta­dium, both will be buried at the bot­tom of their di­vi­sions, car­ry­ing 1-4 records and fac­ing ques­tions about where the two teams will go from here.

“I feel like one fran­chise, the Ravens, is hit­ting a hump, and I think the 49ers are in a val­ley right now,” said former Tampa Bay Buc­ca­neers gen­eral man­ager Mark Dominik, now an an­a­lyst for ESPN. “San Fran­cisco has had a lot of tran­si­tion. That’s re­flected, I think, where they are as an or­ga­ni­za­tion. When I look at the Ravens, I still re­mind my­self that they’ve lost three games by a to­tal of 11 points. I don’t see the Ravens in the same sit­u­a­tion as I see San Fran­cisco in right now.”

Still, the Ravens and 49ers are a tes­ta­ment to how hard it is to win con­sis­tently in the NFL and keep cham­pi­onship-cal­iber teams to­gether. Of the 106 to­tal play­ers on the ac­tive ros­ters for Su­per Bowl XLVII, only 22 are still with the team they rep­re­sented that Sun­day. That list in­cludes only 10 to­tal starters.

“The NFL in it­self, ev­ery week is crazy. Ev­ery week is hard,” said 49ers first-year Coach Jim Tom­sula, the de­fen­sive line coach on former coach Jim Harbaugh’s staff be­fore be­ing el­e­vated to the top job. “You talk about three years ago, that’s an eter­nity in the NFL with free agency and the way every­thing goes.”

For the Ravens, sig­nif­i­cant change af­ter the Su­per Bowl was ex­pected. Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said that it was “ob­vi­ous . . . why we have turned over so many peo­ple,” al­lud­ing to the team’s tight salary-cap sit­u­a­tion and the vet­eran-laden 2012 ros­ter.

The 2012 Ravens were the old­est Su­per Bowl team in a decade. Ray Lewis had al­ready an­nounced his retirement and Matt Birk would soon. Ed Reed headed a large group of free agents.

“That last Su­per Bowl was sort of the last stand for the Ray Lewis and Ed Reed group,” said Phil Sav­age, a former Ravens ex­ec­u­tive and a former gen­eral man­ager of the Cleve­land Browns. “They knew that there was go­ing to be a shift cul­tur­ally from the Ray Lewis-led Ravens to the Joe Flacco-led Ravens. That was hap­pen­ing even in that last Su­per Bowl year.”

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