Before the Carolina Panthers played the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl a decade ago, I interviewed a media insider who estimated that 50 percent of the game's vast TV audience wouldn't even know the Panthers existed until kickoff.
That startled me. I occupy a world where people obsess over their NFL teams and pro football in general; a world in which the ups and downs of all teams are brayed on television and online pretty much nonstop. Yes, the Panthers were still a relatively new franchise then, less than decade old, but how could so many people, tens of millions, never have heard of them?
But of course, the TV audience for the Super Bowl is exponentially larger than the audiences for other games precisely because millions of casual fans and non-fans are tuning in – people who don't obsess over football, have other things to do (imagine that) and are tuned into the Super Bowl only because everyone else is doing it and they don't mind guacamole.
Those many millions of semi-interested fans will have their eyes on the Ravens and San Francisco 49ers Sunday night, and while my guess is they probably already know both teams exist, they could be in for a rough time. I see the potential for widespread bewilderment, millions of people walking around confused over which team is which because, well, let's face it, they're pretty much interchangeable.
Let us count the ways that the Ravens and 49ers are drop-dead identical.
Both are coached by guys named Harbaugh, the Ravens' John and the 49ers' Jim. They're brothers. They used to sleep in the same room. They call the same people "Mom" and "Dad." They still look a lot alike.
Both are led on defense by star inside/middle linebackers wearing number 52. The Ravens Ray Lewis is a future Hall of Famer playing in the final game of his career. The 49ers' Patrick Willis is widely regarded as the next Ray.
Both teams are known for hitting hard, limiting turnovers and generating big plays on offense. The similarities between them this season are so unerring it's actually eerie. Both scored 44 touchdowns during the regular season. Both generated plus-9 turnover ratios. Both had to go on the road and win their conference title games.
Oh, sure, there are differences, too. The Ravens piled up 38 sacks of opposing quarterbacks during the season and the 49ers piled up 37. The 49ers scored 397 points and the Ravens scored 398.
See what I mean? If I'm a casual fan just tuning in and seeing these teams for the first time Sunday night, I'm wondering which is which.
Hey, even their stories are the same. Both teams lost their conference title games in excruciating fashion a year ago, the Ravens falling to the New England Patriots because of a dropped pass and missed field goal in the final minute, the 49ers succumbing to the New York Giants in overtime largely because of a pair of special teams fumbles. The fans of both teams spent the past year playing what-could-have-been while quietly cursing the players whose made key mistakes.
But while the fans tried (and failed) to forget, each team's Harbaugh deduced at some point that a lack of offense was what was really keeping their team from having true Super potential. So each coach took a gamble and made a drastic change.
Jim Harbaugh swapped quarterbacks, benching Alex Smith, a veteran enjoying an excellent season, in favor of Colin Kaepernick, an electric second-year guy with more big-play explosiveness. John Harbaugh fired his offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, with just three weeks left in the regular season, an unheard-of time to make such a move.
Both gambles initially raised eyebrows and worked out magically in the end. Each team was behind at key points in their playoff runs, and just as the Harbaughs figured, needed their offenses to take over and pull out the win. Both offenses delivered, and now the teams are facing each other.
For fans just tuning in, a tricky night looms. The Ravens are 49ers are essentially the same team, boasting of the same tales, pointing to the same stats. There's really only one appropriate way to determine a difference between them: