Niners better chance to return than Ravens

Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates his team's victory over San Fransisco in the Super Bowl.
Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates his team's victory over San Fransisco in the Super Bowl.
Beyonce, Michelle Williams, and Kelly Rowland of the former group Destiny's Child perform.
Beyonce, Michelle Williams, and Kelly Rowland of the former group Destiny's Child perform.
 Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
A dejected Patrick Willis of the San Francisco 49ers walks off of the field.
A dejected Patrick Willis of the San Francisco 49ers walks off of the field.
Singer Beyonce performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl XLVII Halftime Show.
Singer Beyonce performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl XLVII Halftime Show.
Torrey Smith of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates with the Ravens cheerleaders.
Torrey Smith of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates with the Ravens cheerleaders.
Singer Beyonce performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl XLVII Halftime Show.
Singer Beyonce performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl XLVII Halftime Show.
Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates victory in the Super Bowl.
Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates victory in the Super Bowl.
Singer Beyonce performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl XLVII Halftime Show.
Singer Beyonce performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl XLVII Halftime Show.
A sudden power outage delayed play for 35 minutes in the second half of Super Bowl XLVII.
A sudden power outage delayed play for 35 minutes in the second half of Super Bowl XLVII.
Singer Beyonce performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl XLVII Halftime Show.
Singer Beyonce performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl XLVII Halftime Show.
 Jacoby Jones of the Baltimore Ravens catches a 56-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter.
Jacoby Jones of the Baltimore Ravens catches a 56-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter.
Players from the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers push and shove each other in the second quarter.
Players from the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers push and shove each other in the second quarter.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick runs between Baltimore Ravens defensive end Haloti Ngata and inside linebacker Ray Lewi.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick runs between Baltimore Ravens defensive end Haloti Ngata and inside linebacker Ray Lewi.
Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin catches a touchdown pass in front of San Francisco 49ers strong safety Donte Whitner.
Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin catches a touchdown pass in front of San Francisco 49ers strong safety Donte Whitner.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick throws under pressure from Baltimore Ravens free safety Ed Reed during the first quarter.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick throws under pressure from Baltimore Ravens free safety Ed Reed during the first quarter.
Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin catches a touchdown pass in front of San Francisco 49ers strong safety Donte Whitner.
Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin catches a touchdown pass in front of San Francisco 49ers strong safety Donte Whitner.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick gets tackled by Baltimore Ravens defensive end Haloti Ngata and inside linebacker Ray Lewis during the first quarter.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick gets tackled by Baltimore Ravens defensive end Haloti Ngata and inside linebacker Ray Lewis during the first quarter.
Marching bands perform during pre-game ceremonies.
Marching bands perform during pre-game ceremonies.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick prepares with his teammates.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick prepares with his teammates.
Baltimore Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis prays.
Baltimore Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis prays.
A general view of Superdome, New Orleans.
A general view of Superdome, New Orleans.
The San Francisco 49ers take to the field.
The San Francisco 49ers take to the field.
The San Francisco 49ers take to the field.
The San Francisco 49ers take to the field.
Children from Sandy Hook Elementary School, where the Newtown massacre took place, sing America the Beautiful.
Children from Sandy Hook Elementary School, where the Newtown massacre took place, sing America the Beautiful.
Singer Alicia Keys performs the US National Anthem.
Singer Alicia Keys performs the US National Anthem.
Singer Alicia Keys performs the US National Anthem.
Singer Alicia Keys performs the US National Anthem.

The Baltimore Ravens carried off the Lombardi Trophy. Their beaten opponent has a better chance of doing it next season.

San Francisco running back Frank Gore insisted the 49ers were the more talented team even after losing 34-31 to the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. The scoreboard said otherwise, but when the conference champions meet at the Meadowlands next February - yes, outdoors in the dead of winter for the NFL crown - the Niners easily could represent the NFC.

Again.

"I'd say we've got a great group of guys in the locker room, great warriors," Gore said, "and I'm not going to promise anything next year, but we're going to fight to get back here."

The toughest fight might be in their own division with Seattle and rapidly improving St Louis. The Seahawks were the only team to allow fewer points than the 49ers, and their rivalry - including the semi-feud between coaches Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll - adds spice to the NFC West.

But the 49ers have to be the NFC favorite after losing in overtime to the Giants for the conference title last year, then barely falling to the Ravens.

"This is kind of tough, to get this far and let everything slip away through your hands," said Ahmad Brooks, part of the best linebacking corps in the league, along with All-Pros Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman. "The funny thing about it is, within the next few months, we're going to start trying to get back to the same place that we're at right now."

As will the Ravens, but their challenge is more imposing.

Unlike the 49ers, who figure to lose virtually no important parts - receiver Randy Moss, perhaps, but he was a marginal player in 2012 - the Ravens have bid adieu to their greatest player, linebacker Ray Lewis. Not only will they miss his performances on the field and his presence in the locker room, but he was the emotional engine in Baltimore.

The leadership burden will fall on two players whose contracts have expired but likely will be back with the Ravens: Super Bowl MVP quarterback Joe Flacco and veteran safety Ed Reed.

Flacco almost certainly will get the franchise tag at more than US$14 million if he can't agree to a long-term deal. But in the current NFL, winning without a top-level QB is impossible, and there can be no arguing now about Flacco belonging in that class.

Reed wants to return and the Ravens recognise how unwise it would be to let both Lewis and Reed leave at the same time - even after winning their second Super Bowl in 12 seasons.

"I always said when I came into the league and got drafted that I didn't want to be one of those guys jumping from team to team," Reed said during Super Bowl week.

Regardless, the Ravens will be a force - odds makers have placed them behind New England and Denver in the AFC next season - and one of the NFL's most prolific offensive teams.

Flacco throwing to the superb trio of wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta, plus the versatility of running back Ray Rice and a stud backup in Bernard Pierce says so. Flacco's protection from the line and All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach was impeccable in the postseason, helping Flacco throw for a record-tying 11 TDs with no interceptions.

The defence, oddly enough considering Baltimore's reputation, needs some work. But linebacker Terrell Suggs will be even healthier - he came back quickly from a torn Achilles tendon - and top cornerback Lardarius Webb returns from a knee injury.

Just like the 49ers, the Ravens have a tough task in their division. Cincinnati is young, but has made the playoffs the last two years. Pittsburgh never remains dormant for long.

Should these two clubs make it to the first outdoor Super Bowl at a cold-weather site, would Baltimore have the edge because it's used to such conditions? And because it's a three-hour drive from MetLife Stadium, will Ravens fans be out in force even more than they were in the Big Easy?

Or would the 49ers' immense talent base be overwhelming?

Food for thought over the next 11 months.

"We've got to look at this as a blessing because we didn't have to be here, but we made it," tight end Vernon Davis said. "We've always got next year; we've got next season. We might as well look forward to next season, keep our hopes high and continue to climb."

AP