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Article posted: 2/2/2013 6:50 PM

Hampton sticking by ex-Bears teammate Harbaugh

By Barry Rozner

A fad is defined by Webster as "a practice or interest followed for a time with exaggerated zeal."

The question at hand is whether the "pistol" and "read option" are the NFL flavors of the day -- sure to go the way of the Hula Hoop and Wildcat -- or here to stay.

What is certain is the zone read favored by Colin Kaepernick is what got the 49ers to the Super Bowl and a date with the Ravens on Sunday.

It takes a spectacular athlete to run and succeed with it, one who can also throw the football. But without a strong and intelligent offensive line, it's also ineffective.

"That's why I'm picking San Francisco," says Hall of Famer Dan Hampton. "Five minutes into a game I can usually tell who's going to win by looking at the offensive line of both teams. That will tell you a lot."

Hampton, who has an extraordinary record of predicting the Super Bowl outcome, sees a significant difference between the Ravens and the Niners.

"San Francisco can protect, and they can hit you in the head with the running game, plus they have a very good handle on the zone read, which isn't simple," Hampton said.

"Baltimore's offensive line can be exploited. Denver was too arrogant with their game plan and the Patriots didn't think it was important, but the 49ers will exploit that Ravens' offensive line and that will be the game right there."

Of course, the 49ers are much more than an offense that leads postseason teams with 476 yards per game. Their defense was third in the NFL in 2012, allowing 17 points a game and 294 yards, but in the playoffs the Niners are giving up 28 points and 415 yards a game at a time when Joe Flacco is playing the best football of his life.

"The San Francisco defense is very, very good," Hampton said. "Their safeties are terrific and their three linebackers are probably the best group since our guys in 1985. (Defensive lineman) Justin Smith, when he's healthy, is tremendous, and he looked pretty good against Atlanta.

"Where do you attack them? I think Joe Flacco will definitely throw some jump balls, and he's got a great pair of receivers in Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin. They might get something over the top.

"The Ravens are good. Don't get me wrong. This is not an easy game by any means. But I just think the Niners are a very complete team."

The focus of Super Bowl week has been on Kaepernick and Jim Harbaugh's decision to stay with the kid over veteran Alex Smith after he returned from a concussion.

It was an extremely risky decision at the time, though one I applauded because of the potentially high reward. The Niners already knew Smith's ceiling as a game manager, but Kaepernick gave them many more options.

"In the NFL today, it's not about what you can do. It's what you can make the other team worry about, and with Kaepernick there's too much to worry about," Hampton said. "It was a great call by Jim.

"Alex Smith is going to be a guy holding a clipboard. Kaepernick is a dynamic player with unbelievable tools, and he's going to get better and better. The way he threw the ball against Atlanta has to be scary for Baltimore.

"Is it the run, the pass, the play action, the read option, the keeper? Good luck stopping him."

Hampton is a former teammate and once a good friend and golf partner of Jim Harbaugh, but he also credits John Harbaugh for an equally risky move when he fired pal Cam Cameron as Ravens offensive coordinator in early December and replaced him with Jim Caldwell.

"Those were the defining moments of the season for both Harbaughs," Hampton said. "It could have been a disaster for both of them, but they knew it was the right thing to do so they weren't afraid of being criticized if it didn't work out.

"That's what you want in a coach. It must be somewhere in their bloodlines that they have that confidence and fearlessness."

As much as he admires John Harbaugh and the Ravens for getting this far, Hampton is sticking with San Francisco.

"The Ravens just don't have that fastball anymore. They're getting by with breaking stuff," Hampton said. "The offense has really done it for them, and Flacco in the last month has defeated both Mannings, Tom Brady and Andrew Luck.

"Flacco is playing great. It won't be easy for the Niners, but I just don't think the Ravens can get it done defensively anymore.

"So I think it will be close at the half but the Niners will open it up in the second half and win 30-21. It should be a great game."

If the last 10 years are a fair indication, it is likely to be precisely that.

brozner@dailyherald.com

ŸHear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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