NEW ORLEANS — All eyes will be on the quarterbacks in Super Bowl XLVII — crazy legs Colin Kaepernick of San Francisco and strong-armed Joe Flacco of Baltimore — and rightfully so.
But a case can be made that neither team would be vying for the coveted Lombardi Trophy on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome were it not for their “Little Big Men,” 49ers’ running back Frank Gore and his Ravens’ counterpart, Ray Rice.
In a quarterback-driven league, where no-huddle, the Pistol, read-zone option, running back-by-committee and pass-heavy offenses rule, each old-school, throwback-style player came up big on the road in his respective conference championship game.
Rice accounted for 70 yards from scrimmage and scored one touchdown in the Ravens’ 28-13 win against the defending AFC champion New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. Gore rushed for 90 yards and scored two second-half touchdowns in the 49ers’ 28-24 victory against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome.
Consequently, Rice and Gore now find themselves playing on a worldwide stage for the first time in their careers.
“We want to win,” said Gore, a five-time Pro Bowler and the 49ers’ all-time leading rusher who is dedicating his first Super Bowl appearance to his late mother, Lizzie.
“We got a taste of it last year (advancing to the NFC chamipionship game against the Giants) and it felt good. We want to keep that taste in our mouth a long time. As long as we stay together and be one, we’ll keep that taste in our mouth.”
In eight NFL seasons, Gore, 29, has never been closer to tasting the pinnacle of success than he is now.
“We could go anywhere, chalk up a field, pads, no pads, however you want to play it, let’s go, Frank’s going to play,” 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “He’s going to compete. He’s unbelievably tough, passionate, competitive. He’s got incredible will to win that he wears on his sleeve. There’s only one Frank Gore.”
That may be true, but if one puts Gore and Rice back to back, they’d resemble human bookends. Gore stands 5-feet-9, weighs 217 pounds. Rice is 5-8, 212. Each is built NFL tough to withstand the grind of a 16-game season and beyond.
Their 2012 worksheets are mirror images. Gore rushed 258 times for 1,214 yards (4.71-yard average) and scored eight touchdowns. Rice rushed 257 times for 1,143 yards (4.45) and scored nine touchdowns.
Rice also poses a threat on passing downs, catching 61 passes for 478 yards and one score. Eight catches came during a 16-13 overtime win against San Diego in Week 12, including an improbable 29-yard catch-and-run on fourth-and-29 from the Ravens’ 37 inside the final two minutes of regulation.
Afterward, Rice put his catch to a nursery rhyme, calling the play — “Check down, Hey Diddle Diddle, Ray Rice up the middle.’’ It led to a game-tying 38-yard field goal by Justin Tucker as time expired in regulation. Tucker sealed the stunning comeback with another field goal late in overtime.
It wasn’t the pass — a simple checkdown from Flacco — but the crucial yards after the catch that made the play one for the ages. That victory turned out to be huge for the Ravens (13-6), who won the AFC North despite losing four of their last five games.
That late-season slide is all but forgotten now, thanks in part to Rice, whose 2012 numbers have fallen below the lofty standard that he set last season when he posted a franchise record 15 touchdowns, led the NFL in total yards from scrimmage (2,068) and finished second in rushing yards (1,364).
“He’s still making plays,’’ said Ravens’ receiver Jacoby Jones, a native of New Orleans who prepped at Abramson High School. “That’s all I can see.’’
“We certainly understand how important Ray Rice is to what we do,’’ said Ravens’ offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, who assumed that role after Cam Cameron’s abrupt dismissal Dec. 10. “He’s a guy (who) once he gets the ball in his hands, he’s going to do something special with it.
“So we try and make certain that he gets it enough times.’’
In all three playoff games, Rice has carried at least 15 times, highlighted by a signature performance in the Ravens’ 38-35 upset victory in double overtime at Denver when he rushed 30 times for 131 yards and one touchdown.
Despite the emergence of backup running back Bernard Pierce, Rice gets the lion’s share of carries out of the backfield for the Ravens.
“Stats and all that other good stuff, we put that off to the side,’’ said Rice, who was voted to his third Pro Bowl in December. “One thing about our group is that we’re very unselfish. Very unselfish. It doesn’t matter who gets the job done.’’
Rice hopes to finish that thought Sunday.