NEW ORLEANS -- The Baltimore Ravens' scariest threat to 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in Super Bowl XLVII is a disheveled-looking 34-year-old with patches of gray in his hair, a torn labrum in his right shoulder and legs that don't generate the speed they once did.
Ed Reed still is a man to fear. No less an authority than 49ers great Ronnie Lott has called Reed the greatest safety in the history of the game. New England's Tom Brady has said Reed is one of those defenders that the quarterback has to locate before the ball is snapped.
Brady's coach, Bill Belichick, a man notorious for not lavishing praise, paid Reed the ultimate compliment before a game last season.
"I can't say I've coached against anybody better in the secondary than Ed Reed," said Belichick, who also coached against Lott.
Reed's numbers should make 49ers fans shudder. He ranks 10th all-time in the NFL with 61 interceptions with 61. He has eight more in 13 playoff games, fourth-best of all-time. His career regular-season interception return yardage total of 1,541 is tops in the history of the league, and he's also scored 13 touchdowns on defense.
While linebacker Ray Lewis is getting almost all the Ravens' defensive attention in the media this week, it's a good bet Reed is getting the most attention in the 49ers' game-planning sessions, particularly in preparing Kaepernick for the kind of player he's never seen before -- a risk-taking ball hawk who plays
"He plays the middle of the field different than anybody, and he obviously has exceptional range and great instincts," said Kaepernick's more experienced backup, Alex Smith. "He's a unique guy to go against. It definitely requires a lot of film study, because he doesn't play safety like anybody else."
Of course, Reed hasn't seen too many quarterbacks such as Kaepernick, and he admitted as much this week. He said the pistol offense run by the 49ers is more difficult to assess on the fly than most.
"You have so much that can come off it," he said. "You got the pass off it, you got the option off it, you got the dive off it, you got the quarterback (running) off it. They might deliver a pizza or two off it ... you just don't know what they going to come with."
It's been an up-and-down season for Reed. The labrum tear he suffered in October hasn't caused him to miss any games, but the opinion among observers is that his effectiveness has been reduced, particularly as a tackler, and that he may be covering less ground than he used to. He didn't make All Pro for just the third time in his 11-year career.
Nonetheless, Reed still led the Ravens with four interceptions, and chances he will be fully prepared for what the 49ers throw his way, if they dare.
It's the biggest game of his life. This is his first Super Bowl. He's playing in his hometown of New Orleans. What's more, with a rich contract he signed four years ago expiring, there has been much speculation that this could be Reed's last game with the Ravens.
Reed isn't sure if having faced mobile quarterbacks Robert Griffin III and Michael Vick this year will help against Kaepernick.
"Vick was Week 2 and RGIII was like Week 10 or 11," he said. "That's miles ago. Does it help? Maybe. Do I think it does? No. Different team, different offensive line, different receivers. But (Kaepernick) definitely poses the same type of problem that those guys did running and throwing the ball."
Some 49ers greats have weighed in on Reed, warning that the 49ers and Kaepernick better be prepared for Reed.
"You can tell he's a student of the game and it's going to be a chess match to try to outsmart this guy," said Jerry Rice. "That's what I like about Ed Reed. Somehow, he's always around the ball. He can look at certain formations and know exactly what's coming at him."
Lott has long been a fan, and believes even he loses out to Reed in a head-to-head comparison.
"He is a good hitter," he said. "He can really strike. Maybe I hit a little harder but it's not like Reed is deficient in that area. He plays the run well. He tackles and he can cover. But what separates him from everybody who has played the position is his ability with the ball in his hands. He knows how to set up blockers and he has moves like Barry Sanders. I couldn't do that.
"I don't think Ed Reed has to take a back seat to anybody who's ever played the position. Anybody."
To be sure, Kaepernick has to account for that, or he'll be taking a back seat on Sunday.