OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Even if the Christmas matchup between the Ravens and San Francisco ends up serving as a referendum on the MVP race, Lamar Jackson isn’t buying the hype about it previewing a bigger game down the line.
After all, Jackson and Baltimore were in a very similar situation with the same opponent four years ago.
“The Super Bowl is in February. We’re in December right now,” said Jackson, who is battling 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy for this year’s MVP award. “We have to focus on Monday night. I’m not worried about what people are saying.”
Much has changed for both 11-3 teams since last meeting on Thanksgiving weekend of the 2019 season. The Ravens won their eighth straight game in a 20-17 final at M&T Bank Stadium that many believed would be the preview to a rematch in Super Bowl LIV in Miami as both teams went on to earn the No. 1 seed in their respective conferences.
There was no shortage of confidence in the locker room or amongst Ravens fans at that point.
While the 49ers — then quarterbacked by Jimmy Garoppolo — regrouped from that narrow loss to make it all the way to the Super Bowl, the best regular-season team in Ravens history was upset by Tennessee in the divisional round that January, bringing Jackson’s magical MVP season to a stunningly abrupt conclusion. Baltimore has been trying to get back to that spot ever since with this season offering its best opportunity with Jackson healthy in December for the first time in three years.
Improving to 6-1 on the road after last Sunday’s victory at Jacksonville, the Ravens have put themselves in the enviable position of not needing a win against the red-hot 49ers on Monday night. Even with a loss, John Harbaugh’s team knows it can still secure the first-round bye and home-field advantage in the AFC with home victories over Miami and Pittsburgh to conclude the regular season. Of course, a win would give the Ravens the chance to clinch the No. 1 seed by beating the Dolphins on New Year’s Eve.
This is a game of great opportunity rather than desperation or unsettling urgency for Baltimore, which you hope will lead to a looser team playing its best on Monday Night Football.
Still, the Ravens are embracing the national stage to try to prove a point as San Francisco is perceived to be the NFL’s top team after winning its last six games by a combined 113 points. Widely regarded as the best team in the AFC, Baltimore has won eight of its last nine games, has led with inside two minutes to play in each of its 14 games this season, and owns the third-best point differential in the NFL.
As of Thursday morning, the consensus line had the 49ers favored by 5 1/2 points.
“I think the ’11-3s’ are not created equal right now in terms of the 49ers versus us,” said safety Kyle Hamilton, whose versatility is expected to be an X factor against San Francisco’s multi-pronged offense. “We feel a little disrespected by that. I feel like we are the best team in the league, and we’ve got an opportunity in front of the country to show it.”
No, this year’s Super Bowl won’t be decided or scheduled based on what happens Monday, but the Ravens have heard the questions about the consistency and health of their offense as well as a few whispers about their outstanding defense playing a relatively soft schedule and not being as formidable against the run. Other than potentially facing Patrick Mahomes and defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City next month, there’s no test equal to the 49ers, who are shaping up to be one of the very best regular-season teams in recent NFL history.
Kyle Shanahan’s offense has been crushing opponents in a variety of ways while the San Francisco defense has playmakers at every level. It’s similar to how we’ve discussed these Ravens except the 49ers have the superior collection of offensive skill players — especially with three-time Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews and speedy rookie running back Keaton Mitchell now out of the picture — and Baltimore has the more transcendent quarterback and a better defense.
“Those guys definitely have a lot of weapons, but so do we. I feel like I like our team against any team,” inside linebacker Roquan Smith said. “That’s my confidence each and every week. I have the utmost respect for my guys and I know the way we prepare, so I’m betting on us.”
The truth is the Ravens don’t need to win to prove they’re Super Bowl contenders, and a victory guarantees nothing next month. However, winning a test like this should end any talk about what this team can’t do the rest of the way, and it would also ratchet up the pressure to make a deep January run.
Jackson against a San Francisco front seven with multiple Pro Bowl selections.
Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, and Brandon Aiyuk facing Smith, Hamilton, Justin Madubuike, and Marlon Humphrey.
The MVP award still up for grabs with Purdy, Jackson, and McCaffrey regarded by many as the top three candidates entering Week 16.
It doesn’t get much better than this in the regular season, which is why many will have February on their minds watching the league’s two best teams go at it. According to the NFL, Monday will mark only the third regular-season December — or later — matchup between teams with the best outright record in each conference since the 1970 merger.
“If this could be a rematch at the Super Bowl, I’d love it,” said Humphrey, one of only nine active Ravens players who were on that 2019 team. “That means we’d take care of business and get there, but right now, it’s really good to have a really good challenge Monday on Christmas Day. It’s a really good team, so we’re just really excited for that.”
So is the rest of the football world.