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NFL Preview - San Francisco (9-1) at Baltimore (7-3)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - San Francisco 49ers first-year coach Jim Harbaugh said he didn't know until after he was hired that he would be facing his brother John's Baltimore Ravens on Thanksgiving Day.
Thankfully the NFL had the foresight to schedule what has turned out to be a huge game for both clubs.
While much of the focus is on the first NFL game in which sibling head coaches will face one another -- especially given the tradition of the holiday -- the focus for Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers will be a shot at wrapping up a playoff berth.
Standing in the way is older brother John, whose Ravens will look to halt the Niners' eight-game winning streak and maintain their hold on the top spot in the AFC North in Thursday's matchup from M&T Bank Stadium.
Jim Harbaugh has done an excellent job as the 49ers' sideline boss since leaving the college ranks at Stanford to take over a team that hasn't made the playoffs since 2002. That can change with a win over the Ravens on Thursday and a loss by Seattle to visiting Washington on Sunday.
"It's exciting. I'm very proud of Jim and what he's accomplished; I always have been throughout the years," said John Harbaugh. "Even in junior high and high school and when we were playing together, I've always been really proud of him."
Despite a 9-1 record that is the second-best in the NFL behind only the 10-0 Green Bay Packers, San Francisco knows that it has a tough task ahead. The 49ers must travel to the East Coast on a short week, though playing on the road hasn't been a problem for the club in 2011. San Francisco has prevailed in all four of its games as the guest this year and will be attempting to win its first five road contests in a season since coming out on top in all eight in 1990.
"Yeah it's a big deal," Jim Harbaugh said of Thursday's showdown. "It's a big game. Biggest game of the year in a lot of ways because it's our next game. We're going against a team that is, in our opinion, the best team we've played this season. May be the best team we play all season. The best defense without question that we've played. In so many ways it's a big challenge. The shortness of the week is another big challenge there. A lot of things to overcome this week.
"It's unique. It's the first time in history that two brothers have coached against each other. We definitely want to win. There will be a lot of things to focus on other than getting real nostalgic."
The 49ers bring an eight-game win streak into this meeting, their best since an 11-game run during the 1997 season. San Francisco extended the tear with a 23-7 win over visiting Arizona last weekend and clinched its first winning season since 2002.
Alex Smith broke open a close game with a pair of touchdown passes in the third quarter for San Francisco, which ranks second in the NFL with a plus-111 scoring differential. The Niners haven't lost since an overtime defeat to Dallas on Sept. 18.
"A little frustrating," said Smith afterward. "In the passing game we left some stuff out there, but at the same time [it was] a little encouraging that we were still able to put the game away."
San Francisco is playing its fourth Thanksgiving game in franchise history and first since Nov. 23, 1972. The Ravens franchise is playing on the holiday for the first time in its history and is coming off a 31-24 victory over Cincinnati that pushed its record to 7-3 on the season. That is tied with Pittsburgh for the best mark in the division, but Baltimore has bested the Steelers twice this season to hold the tiebreaker.
The Ravens logged three interceptions in the win over the Bengals -- two that led to touchdowns -- despite playing without linebacker Ray Lewis due to a toe injury. It was the first time the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP missed a game since 2007, but he was a big presence for the defense on the sidelines.
"He was there. We didn't want to make a mental error because when we came to the sideline we were still going to hear from our general," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "He was very much out there, as he always is."
Lewis' status for this game is unknown, even though he returned to practice Monday on a limited basis.
Baltimore bounced back from a disappointing loss to Seattle the previous week and has won seven games in a row at home, including all five this year. The Ravens have also won 15 of their last 16 at M&T Bank Stadium, as well as 10 in a row at home versus the NFC.
The 49ers and Ravens have met three times previously, with Baltimore winning the last two encounters after being dealt a 38-20 loss at San Francisco in its inaugural season of 1996. The Ravens rolled to a 44-6 rout in the Niners' only prior visit to M&T Bank Stadium, which took place in 2003, and edged San Francisco by a 9-7 count at Candlestick Park in 2007.
Both Harbaugh brothers will also be facing their sibling's respective team for the first time as head coaches. Jim Harbaugh spent the 1998 season with the Ravens as their starting quarterback.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
San Francisco totaled 431 yards of offense versus Arizona, over 100 yards better than its season average of 322.5 per game that ranks 20th in the league. The 49ers' sixth-ranked ground game accounted for 164 yards, including 88 on 24 carries by Frank Gore (870 rushing yards, 5 TD). Gore, who is 61 rushing yards shy of passing Hall of Famer Joe Perry (7,344) for the most in club history, was supported by backups Anthony Dixon and Kendall Hunter (284 rushing yards, 2 TD, who posted 32 and 27 rushing yards, respectively, in the win. San Francisco's two touchdowns against the Cardinals came through the air, with Smith (1976 passing yards, 13 TD, 4 INT) finding both wide receiver Kyle Williams (9 receptions, 2 TD) and tight end Vernon Davis (39 receptions, 5 TD) for scores. Williams had a career day with five catches for 54 yards, while Davis caught the 34th touchdown pass of his career to pass Brent Jones for the most by a San Francisco tight end. Davis and wide receiver Michael Crabtree (38 receptions, 1 TD) were both targeted 10 times on the day, with Crabtree logging game highs of seven catches and 120 yards. He averaged 17.1 yards per catch. Smith did have an interception, but the 49ers are still tied for the fewest turnovers in the league with nine.
The Ravens' defense figures to match up well against the 49ers even if Lewis (68 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) can't play. Baltimore is third in the league with just 17.6 points allowed per game and is holding opponents to 92.3 rushing yards per game, fifth-best in the league. The Ravens have also allowed the second-fewest 100-yard rushers (26) dating back to the 1999 season and produced a string of 39 straight games without allowing one from Dec. 17, 2006-Oct. 4, 2009. With Lewis out, fellow inside linebacker Jameel McClain (47 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) stepped up with a team high-tying nine tackles against the Bengals, matching safety Bernard Pollard (45 tackles, 2 sacks). Pollard also had one of Baltimore's two sacks, with rookie defensive end Pernell McPhee notching the other, while safety Ed Reed (38 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT), cornerback Lardarius Webb (51 tackles, 3 INT) and rookie corner Jimmy Smith (4 tackles, 1 INT) all had interceptions. Suggs (46 tackles, 6 sacks, 2 INT) will be looking to get in Smith's face when the 49ers opt to pass, while defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (42 tackles, 3 sacks) will try to clog up Gore's running lanes.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Running back Ray Rice (663 rushing yards, 51 receptions, 10 total TD) continues to be the Ravens' top offensive weapon. He ran for 104 yards on 20 carries last Sunday, finding the end zone twice while adding another five receptions for 43 yards. Rice leads Baltimore in receptions this season and with 5,720 career yards from scrimmage, needs just 59 more to pass Derrick Mason for second on the club's all-time list. Quarterback Joe Flacco (2576 passing yards, 12 TD, 8 INT) targeted Rice a team-high 10 times against Cincinnati, but it was rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith (29 receptions, 5 TD) who led the club with six catches for 165 yards. One of those grabs was a 38- yard score and he posted an incredible 27.5 average per catch, and he's already set a Ravens rookie record for single-season receiving yards. Smith also leads the NFL with a 20.3 yards-per-catch average, while his total from last week was the best ever by a Baltimore rookie. No. 1 wideout Anquan Boldin (44 receptions, 3 TD) was limited to only one catch last Sunday, but it was a 35- yard touchdown, while tight end Ed Dickson (42 receptions, 3 TD) made a pair of grabs. Flacco ended with steady numbers of 17 completions and 270 yards, getting sacked once while throwing one pick.
San Francisco leads the NFL with a plus-17 turnover differential and padded that stat last week by forcing five turnovers against Arizona. The 49ers logged three interceptions while holding the Cardinals to 149 passing yards, with linebacker Patrick Willis (85 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and safeties Dashon Goldson (45 tackles, 3 INT) and Donte Whitner (40 tackles, 2 INT) all recording picks. Willis also forced a fumble in addition to making a team- leading seven tackles, while Whitner recovered an Arizona miscue. Willis and fellow inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman (95 tackles) will be tasked with keeping an eye on Rice and both are capable of the challenge, while corners Carlos Rogers (30 tackles, 5 INT) and Tarell Brown (29 tackles) will look to contain Torrey Smith from going deep. San Francisco ranks first in both points allowed (14.5 ppg) and rushing defense, yielding 73.9 yards per outing. Defensive lineman Justin Smith (35 tackles, 4.5 sacks) is the anchor of the Niners' three-man front, which has helped San Francisco not allow a 100-yard rusher in 32 straight games. The 49ers have also yet to yield a rushing touchdown on the season.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The 49ers make their living on the ground, keeping the pressure off of Alex Smith. San Francisco got all three of its running backs work last week and will likely spread the workload out again to keep fresh legs going against the Ravens' run defense.
Jim Harbaugh mentioned in his press conference the challenge of traveling to the East Coast, but the Niners have already picked up wins at Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Detroit and Washington this year. He has done a great job of getting San Francisco road ready, but the team will face its biggest travel adversity of this year this week.
The Ravens average just under 100 yards per game on the ground, but that doesn't take away from Rice's importance. The small back has six touchdowns in his past four games, though last week was just his third 100-yard rushing game. San Francisco certainly has the talent in Willis and Bowman to contain the playmaker, and this matchup is certainly the one to watch.
Thanksgiving is traditionally about family, but Jim and John Harbaugh will certainly be putting their blood ties aside this Thursday. As the home team, the Ravens will certainly be favored, but the 49ers have been proving doubters wrong for eight straight games. However, the odds of San Francisco running the table from here on out is pretty slim and the club is due for a letdown. Baltimore's defense is the best that the Niners have faced at this point and should offer the club a bit of a reality check.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 20, 49ers 16
11/22 14:41:27 ET