Victories for Baltimore and San Francisco would set up the brothers to meet at the Super Bowl.
Harbaugh family duel on target for NFL's grandest stage
On Thanksgiving Day 2011, the Harbaughs, much like many families across the United States, posed for a photograph. The setting was far from routine.
The picture was snapped on the field before a game between Baltimore and San Francisco. It included Jack and Jackie Harbaugh, along with sons John and Jim, the coaches of the Ravens and 49ers.
Brothers calling the shots on opposite sidelines in the NFL that day was a big deal. Now, with each Harbaugh one victory away from facing off in the Super Bowl, memories inspired by that cherished portrait might be dwarfed by another one taken in two weeks at the New Orleans Superdome.
Prepare for an onslaught of Harbaugh-versus-Harbaugh stories should the Ravens upend New England and the 49ers oust Atlanta today. But do not expect any trash talk from them, aside from some brotherly sarcasm.
The glib siblings, separated in age by a mere 16 months, are almost close enough to be twins. About four hours after trying to one-up each other last season, the two embraced near the spot of the pre-game portrait and exchanged expressions of love.
Those feelings seem equalled by respect for each other.
"I don't think there's any coach in the game today that really has the full grasp of offence, defence and special teams like my brother has," the 49ers' Jim told CSNBayArea.com this past week.
Said the Ravens' John before the 2011 game: "I couldn't be more proud of our parents or for Jim."
When the coaches were young boys, their father, then a college football coach, would impart the same tip each morning before school: "Attack this day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind."
In addition to boundless energy, the pair are distinguished by a willingness to take bold measures.
Alex Smith, the 49ers quarterback, had lost only five of his past 26 games when a concussion idled him. Once he healed, Jim stayed with Colin Kapernick, Smith's replacement, in violation of unwritten coaching protocol that a player does not lose his starting role solely because of injury.
Even deeper into the season, when shuffling assistant coaches is considered risky, John bounced his offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and subbed in Jim Caldwell.
The moves have been an astounding success, with each offence much improved.
There will be no family smiles for the camera today. Mother an father, both in their 70s, will watch both games from their home. "We share our misery with no one but ourselves," Jack said, half-jokingly.
While the parents are pulling for Harbaugh against Harbaugh for the championship, those who recall the 2011 game might prefer another matchup. The Ravens won 16-6, in a dreary, defence-first game.
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