Before the season started, many pundits had the upcoming Christmas Day clash between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers circled on their calendars. What many did not know is that these heavyweights would be the consensus two best teams in the league, holding the No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences.
By almost every account, the 49ers are the best team in the NFL right now. Since the return of injured stars Deebo Samuel and Trent Williams, they’ve essentially steamrolled every team in their path. The 49ers have outscored opponents by a ridiculous 207-94 margin over their last six games. After a three-game skid earlier in the year, it’s safe to say that San Francisco is the prohibitive favorite to win the Super Bowl.
In the purple corner, the Ravens come in having won eight of their last nine games, sporting the No. 1 scoring defense in the NFL (16.1 PPG) and the league’s most dynamic quarterback in Lamar Jackson. The Ravens rank first in rushing and total defense — typically a good formula for success. Ironically, the 49ers rank second in both categories.
As this epic matchup draws closer, it’s important to realize just how good these two teams are. Both franchises have deployed different styles that go against the grain of the modern NFL mantra of high-octane pass games. As a result, teams have had trouble finding answers to stop them. Ten years after their epic Super Bowl matchup, the 49ers and Ravens gear up for the game of the year in Santa Clara with the title of the league’s best team and Super Bowl favorite on the line.
Built in the same mold
For the better part of the 2000s and 2010s, the 49ers and Ravens have been the antithesis of hard-nosed, run first teams. Although Baltimore’s history of a great defense and run game spans back to the year 2000, the 49ers have, in their own respect, followed a similar track since the hiring of Jim Harbaugh in 2011. As we remember well, the 49ers leaned on a prolific rushing attack behind quarterback Colin Kaepernick and paired it with a great defense that featured stars like Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith. In 2013, the two teams met in the Super Bowl and gave us an extremely memorable game that resulted in the Ravens winning their second Lombardi.
Over the next four years, both teams struggled to find any significant success. Multiple players from the Ravens championship team retired or took to free agency while the 49ers lost Jim Harbaugh to Michigan in 2014. Now, fast forward to February 6, 2017. One day after the Atlanta Falcons lost to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 51, San Francisco hired on Falcons’ offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to be the team’s next head coach.
Shanahan quickly transformed San Francisco back into a contender with his unique offense centered around the run game. Three years later, the 49ers were back in the big game and despite a loss to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, knew they had found their coach and identity for the future. Over the following years, the 49ers continued to add talent. They traded for star running back Christian McCaffery and drafted quarterback Brock Purdy in the seventh round of the 2022 NFL draft. With the cost-efficient contract of a seventh-round quarterback, the 49ers have continued to stack their offense and defense, to the point where they now have arguably the best or second-best unit on each side of the ball.
On the opposite side of the country, the Ravens were building a new future of their own. After years of mediocre seasons marred by injuries and late-season collapses, the Ravens decided to go in a new direction. On April 26, 2018, the team drafted Jackson with the 32nd pick of the NFL draft. The selection of Jackson ushered in a new era of football in Baltimore, spearheaded by a dominant rushing attack and talented defense. In 2019, the Ravens broke every significant single-season rushing record enroute to a 14-2 record and first round playoff bye. Despite constant roster and personnel overturn, the Ravens have stuck to their age-old identity of establishing the run and suffocating teams with great defense.
In a league that has pushed a pass-first agenda, the Ravens and 49ers have maintained an identity that is flourishing in the modern NFL. Opposing teams simply don’t have the stamina and physicality to match up with them. Last Sunday night in Jacksonville, the Jaguars had success moving the ball on Baltimore. In the second half, though, Baltimore bludgeoned them with 200 yards on the ground, making it nearly impossible for them to take control. Similarly, it’s impossible for teams to not get worn down by players like Samuel, McCaffery, Williams, and George Kittle.
Monday night will be a war of attrition. The team that stops the run will probably end up victorious. Roughly ten years since their Super Bowl showdown, the 49ers and Ravens — two teams built in the same mold — will get the opportunity to impose their legacy on one another in what should be an instant classic.
Best regular season game in NFL history (!?)
While the NFL is accustomed to having great teams play each other towards the end of the year, this one feels a little different. These two teams are really good.
Analytics platforms like FTNfantasy are suggesting this might be the greatest regular season game ever in terms of DVOA, since the metric was implemented in 1981. Per the metric, the 49ers are the highest-weighted DVOA team since 1981 at 52%, with the 2007 New England Patriots second at 48%. Weighted DVOA puts a stronger emphasis on recently played games to get a better sense of how good a team is at the moment. Naturally, San Francisco’s is off the charts considering they’ve been walking teams off the field for the past six weeks. Not far behind are the Ravens, who rank No. 16 all-time in weighted DVOA through fourteen weeks at 39.3%. Essentially, the 49ers are playing at the highest level we’ve ever seen while the Ravens, in most seasons, would be first by a wide margin.
For reference, the 2019 Ravens ranked No. 7 all-time through fourteen weeks at 43%. Per Aaron Schatz, the Patriots vs. Colts game in 2007, which featured two undefeated teams, would probably rank No. 1 on the list — with the Ravens vs. 49ers as a close second. Analytically, these are two of the best teams in NFL history and while that doesn’t always translate directly to a Super Bowl appearance, it must count for something. The Ravens have led in the fourth quarter of every game they’ve played, with their three losses being a result of self-imposed meltdowns. The 49ers are red-hot and have the best offense in the NFL. Baltimore might have the best defense. The game will feature the two leaders in MVP odds with Jackson and Purdy. With so many different storylines, it will be hard to focus on just one.
Ravens as underdogs
Since becoming the full-time starting quarterback midway through the 2018 season, Jackson and the Ravens have rarely been underdogs. For just the second time this year, the Ravens will be playing with house money. Their Week 2 matchup against the Bengals was the only other instance when they weren’t the betting favorite. In his career, Jackson is 11-2 as an underdog dog and 19-1 against the NFC. On a side note, underdogs are 7-0 straight up on Monday Night Football this year. If history is any indication, this game should be close.
The Ravens have long embraced an underdog mentality. In the team’s two Super Bowl runs, they had the odds stacked against them and prevailed. Multiple times, the Ravens had to win on the road in the postseason and were able to play spoiler. The team has seemingly embraced the role yet again and feel slighted by the big line ahead of Monday’s game. In Wednesday’s post-practice press conference,, star safety Kyle Hamilton echoed the mindset saying that the team feels “disrespected” and that they’re the league’s best team.
It’s rare to see an 11-3 team with the 16th highest DVOA in history as nearly a touchdown underdog this late in the season. It’s a testament to how well the 49ers are playing. However, the Ravens feel well equipped to take the challenge head-on and emerge victorious on Christmas.
Does Monday night really move the needle on the Ravens’ season? Probably not. If they lose to the 49ers and beat Miami and Pittsburgh, they would still hold the No. 1 seed by season’s end. However, this game clearly has a high level of importance for everyone involved. It’s rare we get to see the two best teams in the league duke it out this late in the year.
For the 49ers, they want to show that they can put up numbers on a top-ranked defense and cement their claim as the best team in the league. The Ravens, on the other hand, are trying to stake their claim as the team to beat in the AFC. Despite having the best record and most impressive resume in the conference, media figures continue to mention Buffalo, Miami, or Kansas City as the favorite to get to the big game.
The Ravens have played a lot of good teams this year but none like San Francisco. They posses the physicality and speed to threaten Baltimore’s defense, and the defensive line and linebackers to make life difficult on Jackson and the offensive line. It’s been rare to see Baltimore get blown out in the Jackson and Harbaugh era and Monday should be no different. If anyone can overcome the odds and put on a show, it’s Jackson.