NEW ORLEANS -- Ed Reed aimed an incredulous glare at a questioning reporter.
Are the San Francisco 49ers a more physical football team than the Baltimore Ravens?
"We'll see about that," said Reed, roundly considered the best safety to ever play the game. "We'll see on Sunday. They are physical. And it will be a key factor in the game. But I wouldn't say they're more physical than us. I wouldn't say that at all."
The Ravens, it seems, don't like being challenged for the heavyweight belt of hitting.
But challenged they will be on Sunday and eventually punished into submission.
This game will all come down to which team can push the other around at the line of scrimmage and San Francisco will come out on top. The Niners have the better offensive line and their front seven is younger, stronger and fresher than Baltimore's. They will prevail. Baltimore and its supporters can rant all they like about their toughness. They'll be exposed as the weaker of the two sides on Sunday and it will show up on the scoreboard in a Niners win. San Francisco will bully its way to a Super Bowl title against the franchise considered the NFL's most physical.
The Ravens may be the organization with the reputation as the NFL's biggest and baddest but they're living on yesterday's press clippings. Baltimore is no longer the meanest dog in the NFL. That title belongs to the San Francisco 49ers and soon, too, will the world champion tag.
The Ravens have been able to push around the NFL for years. Reed and Ray Lewis have led the bullying on the field. Head coach John Harbaugh has enforced it from the sidelines with his Play Like a Raven mantra.
"It means being nasty and playing rough, tough football. Playing with some type of cruelty, but not trying to kill somebody," said defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. "It's a nastiness where you're going to impose your will on teams, so that's what we what want to do. Harbaugh brought it in when he started coaching us. He brought that motto to our team and we just took off with it. We always talk about it. There's a sign at every practice and every game that says 'Play Like a Raven.' That's always there."
Brother Jim Harbaugh has a saying of his own that he's ingrained in his organization.
"Jim likes to say this all the time: 'Grind the meat and rattle the molars,'" says Niners offensive co-ordinator Greg Roman. "We say it in our organization all the time. It's about running the ball down the other team's throat and hitting hard all the time. Always finishing a block and taking every chance to punish your opponent."
Both teams have quarterbacks and receivers that can make an impact and often do. But it all starts with the run in Baltimore and in San Francisco.
"It's going to be a real physical game. (San Francisco) pride themselves and their offence prides themselves in being physical and trying to run the ball," said Ngata. "They have a physical running back. We want to be physical all the time. I expect it to be a real physical game."
John Harbaugh says he understands the maxim his brother Jim has pinned on his football team.
"Grind the meat and rattle the molars. That's Bo. That's straight Jerry Hanlon, Bo Schembechler, Michigan, Midwest, Big 10, grey-skies football," smiled John Harbaugh, when asked about his brother's approach. "That goes back to the roots. When Michigan would be ahead Bo would get on the headphones with Jerry and say, 'It's time to grind some meat.' That means it's time to run the ball, four-minute offence. They'd run an off-tackle play. Rattle the molars, that's coming off the ball. That's trench warfare for football upfront. That's football."
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is arguably the best deep-ball passer in the NFL and Colin Kaepernick has one of the league's best arms and is a threat to run at any time.
Betting the quarterbacks is often a sound strategy and Flacco's experience makes him the safer gamble. But Kaepernick's explosiveness can't be ignored.
Niners safety Donte Whitner says this game will all boil down to which team can push the other around.
"We're looking forward to it. That's our game. We're nowhere near finesse. Our game is being physical and that's why we've been able to win a lot of football games and keep a lot of people out of the middle of the football field. We'll see who's going to be the most physical," said Whitner.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @garylawless