49ers (9-1) @ Ravens (7-3)
The HarBowl is finally upon us, Baltimore. A game that looked to be a cake win when the schedule first came out is now anything but, as John’s brother and ex-Ravens quarterback Jim has his San Francisco team riding high on an 8-game winning streak. The 49ers can actually clinch a playoff spot with a win on Thanksgiving, quite an amazing feat. The Ravens have a tall task ahead of them, but if they can emerge victorious, they will become the AFC’s first 8-win team.
San Francisco wins with a ball-control offense and opportunistic defense, not dissimilar to the way we’ve seen our Ravens win a whole lot of football games over the past decade-plus. Their offense revolves around their running game and workhorse back Frank Gore. Gore is 7th in the NFL with 840 rushing yards and is averaging a robust 4.7 yards per carry. The Ravens, after getting run over roughshod by Marshawn Lynch in Seattle two weeks ago, seemed to have gotten their run defense back on track last week against the Bengals, holding Cedric Benson to 2.7 yards on 15 carries. Haloti Ngata had a poor game, and appears to be playing at less than 100%. Terrence Cody needs to pick up his game like it looked like he was going to at the start of the season. There are conflicting reports about whether or not Ray Lewis will suit up or will miss his second consecutive game; having #52 on the field, even at less than 100%, will go a long way to slowing down Gore, especially with Dannell Ellerbe once again banged up.
Quarterback Alex Smith has resurrected his career under new head coach Jim Harbaugh. The former #1 overall pick, after six very up-and-down seasons, is playing his best football, throwing 13 touchdowns and only four picks while completing 62% of his passes for 7.2 yards per attempt. He isn’t as mobile as the Bengals’ Andy Dalton, so hopefully the Ravens will have a little more luck in getting their hands on him in the pocket and bringing him down. The pass rush finally showed up when needed most desperately against Cincinnati, but it would be good to see some of Chuck Pagano’s blitzes get home. Tight end Vernon Davis leads the team in receiving, followed closely by fellow first rounder Michael Crabtree. Davis presents the kind of match up problems the Ravens experienced with Jermaine Gresham last week, so hopefully they’ve learned a thing or two from their past mistakes. Problem is, none of the Ravens linebackers can run with Davis, and safety Bernard Pollard is at his best when moving downhill. I’m an advocate of putting the most physical corner the Ravens have, rookie Jimmy Smith, on Davis. Smith showed some good and bad last week, recording his first professional interception and also being torched for a long touchdown. Still, I think he gives the Ravens their best shot against Davis, while Cary Williams and Lardarius Webb try to deal with Crabtree.
On defense, everyone immediately thinks of All-Pro middle linebacker and Ray Lewis heir apparent Patrick Willis. Willis is obviously at the top of his game at the moment, but there are plenty of other playmakers on the San Francisco defense. Fellow linebacker NaVorro Bowman roams the inside with Willis wreaking havoc on opposing runners. Former Bengal Justin Smith, who terrorized the Ravens for years with his old club, has 4.5 sacks and has caused two fumbles. Former first round draft pick cornerbacks Carlos Rodgers (5 INT) and Donte Whitner (2 INT) seem to have found their homes in San Fran after somewhat disappointing starts to their careers in Washington and Buffalo, respectively.
Cam Cameron called perhaps his best game of the season against the Bengals, mixing the run, pass, and play action very effectively. The result, as we saw, was wide open seams in the running game and lots of room for rookie Torrey “The Torch” Smith down the field. Smith was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance, and hopes to follow it up with another strong day. After only having the one catch (at least it was a TD) last week, look for Anquan Boldin to see more targets against the Niners. Ray Rice will have his work cut out for him against the NFL’s top run defense, but Cam needs to stick with the running game regardless of its effectiveness. When Rice gets his touches, it gives the Ravens the best chance to win – there is simply no arguing that at this point. The 49ers have yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season; I’m betting #27 breaks that streak.
Last week, the Ravens were just 2/6 on third down attempts of two yards or less. That is a pathetic stat that needs to improve immediately, especially against the 49ers and their own eat-the-clock offense. Cam will have to show some creativity – you won’t just pound it straight ahead for 2 or 3 yards against this defense – but the Ravens need a performance more like they had in Pittsburgh, converting third down try after third down try.
Special teams could play a big part in this game as well. 49ers kicker David Akers has connected on 26 of his 31 field goal attempts, with four of his five misses coming between 40-49 yards (he is 5/5 from 50+). Billy Cundiff is 22/28 for the year, but is 13/13 at M&T Bank Stadium. San Francisco punter Andy Lee is averaging 50.1 yards per punt, second in the NFL (Oakland’s Shane Lechler is #1, so maybe it’s something about that Bay Area air?) It will be interesting to see if David Reed is back returning kicks again for the Ravens. They ran only one kick out of the end zone last week, opting to settle for touchbacks on the others. While that’s the safe play, especially after the debacle returning kicks in Seattle, it would be nice to see someone make a special teams play here soon. Even Lardarius Webb looks indecisive and tentative on punt returns.
The 49ers are a formidable club, but the disadvantage they are at with traveling across three time zones on a short week is more than just media hype. While they have bucked the trend so far this year in going 4-0 in the eastern time zone, it will be another feat altogether for San Francisco to push their record to 5-0 in that department against the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens have won 10 straight at home against NFC clubs, and are 16-1 against them in Baltimore since 2003 (only loss coming to Carolina in 2006). They are 7-0 at The Vault against the NFC under Harbaugh. It’ll be a good one, but there’s just too much for the upstart Niners to overcome. Big brother beats little brother in the first HarBowl.
Happy Turkey Day, everyone.
Ravens 23 49ers 16