The Baltimore Ravens are no strangers to playing tough teams with great defenses on prime time TV while the San Francisco 49ers are facing what easily will be the most physical team they have seen this season. Playing in the AFC North, Baltimore faces the Pittsburgh Steelers and you can now add the Cincinnati Bengals to that based on the turnaround season they are having.
Meanwhile the 49ers, while giving them total credit and respect for the amazing season they are having, play in the NFC West, the weakest division in the NFL. That level of experience should have a definite effect on the game tonight, being shown nationally on the NFL Network. The game might be billed as the "Har-Bowl" as this is the first tie in NFL history that brothers are facing each other as head coaches, but it is really the face-off on the field that will be the real story.
The NFL got it right by putting these two teams on prime time but they never expected it to be between two of the top teams in the league at week 12 of the 2011 season. What makes it interesting is that these teams are actually close to mirror images of each other. Great defenses, offenses that focus on running the ball and two QB's that are beginning to come into their own as solid leaders. Both teams also feature great inside linebackers who wear #52, SF's Patrick Willis and of course, the Ravens future Hall of Fame Ray Lewis.
(Read more on this after the 'Jump' and see my prediction as well as my picks on the other two Thanksgiving Day games)
The weather will not play a role in the outcome, as it will be crisp and clear tonight at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium, with a game-time temperature expected to be 48 degrees. The key to the game will be which offense can break through these shutdown defenses and it will probably come to the team that runs the ball over more will be the team eating crow after the game rather than turkey.
Looking specifically at the turnover situation, it might seem that the 49ers have the edge on both sides of the ball, turning over the ball the least in the league and creating the most from their defense. At the same time, Ravens QB Joe Flacco has ten fumbles and has thrown eight interceptions through his first 10 games. Defensively, SF has not surrendered a single rushing touchdown this season. On the other hand, the usually stout Ravens run defense has given up over 100 yards rushing in fur of the past five games and their leader, Ray Lewis may possibly be on the sidelines watching due to an injured toe which kept him out of last week's game.
However, the Ravens have a couple of huge things on their side of the equation which should make the difference in the game. In the history of Thursday Night Football, no west coast team has ever came to the east coast and won. Ever.
The Ravens are a perfect 5-0 at home and while they have had frustrating losses this season, they have all been on the road and all against significantly lesser quality teams. San Francisco is far from one of the those teams and Baltimore has found a way to win the big games on prime time TV this season, as evidenced by their wins over the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday Night Football so far in 2011.
Veteran leadership and the home field advantage, plus the experience of paying tough teams in big games on national TV gives Baltimore a huge advantage in the intangible aspect of the game, and since the game is never played on paper, those intangibles should come to the forefront and be the difference in tonight's game. Look for the Ravens running game to have a tough time, but the passing attack has enough options and the speed of rookie WR Torrey Smith is tough to practice for and should play a key role in the game.
The 49ers offense will find it tough going against the hardest hitting defense they have experienced so far and they will be forced to throw more than they prefer which usually feeds into the Ravens creating their own defensive opportunities to take away the ball and give it to the offense on a short field. While this will be a great game that should not be decided until the end of the game, look for the intangibles mentioned above to show that a 9-1 record will not faze the Ravens as they have San Francisco eating crow by the end of the game, while they enjoy turkey after a hard-fought victory.
(NOTE: In the early Thanksgiving Day games, look for the Dallas Cowboys to continue their resurgence in the NFC East with a win over the visiting Miami Dolphins and the Green Bay Packers to remain undefeated and disappoint an excited Detroit Lions hometown crowd with an overwhelming passing attack.)