ON FOOTBALL: Super Bowl rematch a huge long shot as Ravens and 49ers struggle

Right about now, the Ravens and 49ers should be in the midst of their spurts toward a second straight meeting in the Super Bowl.

They'd better make their turnarounds long and powerful, because both have hit the skids.

Things are much worse in Baltimore, which could have been expected to take a step backward after the retirements of Ray Lewis and Matt Birk, the defensive defections of Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Cary Williams, Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger, and the trade of top receiver Anquan Boldin. Lots of lost leadership and experience, not to mention big plays departing from the roster.

Still, for Baltimore to be 4-6 in what has not been a particularly tough division this season is difficult to comprehend. The Ravens have had virtually no running game as Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce fight injuries and the line struggles to open holes. That's put more emphasis on the passing game, and Joe Flacco's protection has not held up. Plus, he doesn't have the quality targets with Boldin gone and tight end Dennis Pitta injured.

With the defense showing improvement heading into the stretch, the onus will be on Baltimore's offense to break out of its funk.

"Our task is to get better at it," says coach John Harbaugh, who's 5 for 5 in making the playoffs as a head coach, a streak in serious danger with six weeks remaining. "You need big plays, that's for sure. You need chunk plays in the run game, you need over-the-top pass plays, and you need catch-and-run pass plays. Those are things that make the difference for you.

"It's pretty hard to just whittle your way down the field and be perfect every play against the caliber defenses we play. The big plays are very important, and we've got to find a way to make those and eliminate the issues we're having right now."

Another issue has been a minus-5 turnover differential, with Flacco already throwing 13 interceptions; he had only 10 in the 2012 season and none in the sensational playoff surge.

Flacco has been sacked 33 times, two fewer than all of last season.

The defense has only seven picks, just three by cornerbacks.

Of course, the Ravens went through a slide last year, dropping three straight games and four of five in December. Then they turned it all around in the playoffs.

Another turnaround had better be imminent.

"Everything is different," Flacco said. "We're 4-6. We've dealt with as much crap as you can deal with. We haven't played well. We've had to ... talk about not playing well and staring it straight in the eye and dealing with it.

"I'm sure it's a little bit different mindset than it was last year. I was thinking to myself we've been in this type of situation before. Whether we were at the top of the wild card or the top of the division, we've always been in a pretty tight race where it's come down to the last game of the season and having to win a football game. We've been in tight races before, and we're really in no different of a situation this year right now. Our record just isn't the same."

Nor is San Francisco's.

At 6-4, the Niners are in far better shape to get to the postseason than is the team that conquered them last February. They're tied for the final NFC wild card and other than a home game with Seattle, the runaway NFC West leader, and a finale at Arizona, the schedule isn't daunting.

But there's no question the 49ers have been a disappointment. Not of the caliber of the Ravens so far — and certainly nothing like how Atlanta, Houston and Washington have collapsed — but nearly as many problems have cropped up in the Bay Area as have by the Inner Harbor.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was a revelation when he took over for Alex Smith in a 32-7 win over Chicago and sparked the 49ers to the NFC title. His legs, his arm, his creativity poise under pressure all seemed to portend a superstar in the making.

Instead, Kaepernick has been inconsistent and San Francisco's passing offense at times has been nonexistent. The running game remains solid behind Frank Gore, and the defense still makes big plays and can be stingy, but it hasn't been enough to keep pace with Seattle (10-1).

"Once you're playing, you're trying to find a way to make the best of the situation," cornerback Carlos Rogers said. "Try to find a way to make plays each and every week; we still put ourselves in a position to win the game. We just don't finish."

Rogers insists no chasms will develop in the locker room, and that the 49ers are plenty capable of making a late-season run.

"We're sticking together no matter what the situation may be," he said. "You do see it, finger pointing, people calling people out. But I don't think that's going to happen in the locker room. We're a tight family. We stick together. We don't call people out. Whatever we need to handle in-house, we handle in-house.

"It's frustrating for everybody."


AP Sports Writers Janie McCauley and David Ginsburg contributed to this story.


AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org