Twelve Ravens Thoughts (and a prediction) ahead of Week 16 showdown at San Francisco

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With the Ravens having the opportunity to make a definitive claim as the NFL’s best team on the road against the NFC-leading San Francisco 49ers on Monday night, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. What a way to conclude Christmas Day with this being among the most anticipated regular-season matchups in recent NFL history. Not counting any rivalry game with more established history, it doesn’t get any better than this with even the analytics community hyping the significance.

2. Though Ronnie Stanley was practicing fully by week’s end and Morgan Moses isn’t even listed on the injury report, that doesn’t reflect the concerns surrounding these veteran offensive tackles facing Nick Bosa and Chase Young. Their health could be the biggest threat to Baltimore’s championship aspirations. 

3. With that in mind, it wasn’t a coincidence that Todd Monken mentioned the need to “get the ball out on time” when asked about Lamar Jackson’s Superman-like play. Having “a two-play quarterback” is so special, but Jackson can’t keep carrying such a heavy burden operating from the pocket.

4. Praising Kyle Hamilton has become commonplace, but Marlon Humphrey described the value of the second-year safety — who isn’t really a safety — perfectly. “He’s one guy that if you cloned 11 of him, he could play every single position.” His play at the second level of the defense will be critical. 

5. Despite impressive numbers, the ground game finds itself in unsettling territory in the wake of Keaton Mitchell’s injury with the only sure thing being Jackson’s dynamic legs. However, the 49ers’ soft spot — relatively speaking — is their run defense, which ranks 19th in yards per carry allowed and 18th in DVOA. 

6. Christian McCaffrey is the best running back in football facing a defense that’s surrendered 4.3 yards per carry or more in five straight games. This will be a huge test for Jadeveon Clowney, Kyle Van Noy, and Odafe Oweh to hold the edge on San Francisco’s outside zone runs. 

7. The 49ers passing game is second in the NFL in yards per game and first in touchdowns despite ranking last in attempts. San Francisco averages 9.8 yards per pass attempt, which is 2.1 yards better than the Ravens’ fourth overall ranking. The level of efficiency and explosiveness is absurd. 

8. Some dismissals of Brock Purdy potentially being the MVP go too far, but he hasn’t seen a pass defense like this and really struggled against Cleveland in Week 6, a game in which McCaffrey, Trent Williams, and Deebo Samuel suffered injuries. Remember how well Jared Goff was playing before facing Baltimore?

9. Samuel and George Kittle fetch the headlines as receivers, but Brandon Aiyuk leads the 49ers in receptions, receiving yards, targets, and catches of 20 or more yards. Aiyuk is particularly effective against man coverage, which the Ravens play more frequently than most defenses. 

10. Left guard Aaron Banks and center Jake Brendel are the weak links on the San Francisco offensive line, which sounds like a golden opportunity for Justin Madubuike and Michael Pierce to harass Purdy in the pocket. Generating pressure against Williams and right tackle Colton McKivitz is another story. 

11. Per Sharp Football, San Francisco has led for a league-best 65.1% of its offensive snaps while Baltimore is second at 64.8%. The Ravens have led in a league-high 82.7% of their second-half snaps while the 49ers rank second at 78.1%. I’d say neither team is used to playing from behind.

12. The Ravens have the luxury of watching what unfolds all weekend with the potential to clinch the AFC North with a win and a Cleveland loss at Houston. A win and a Miami loss to Dallas would certainly change the complexion of next week’s tilt with the Dolphins too. 

Prediction: Much of the “disrespect” chatter this week has been contrived, but anyone truly dismissing the Ravens’ chances of traveling across country and winning on Christmas night hasn’t been paying attention. You have to go back to Week 10 of the 2021 season for the last time Baltimore lost a game started by Jackson by more than one score, so I fully expect this to be a very close and highly entertaining game. That said, the 49ers have been the league’s most dominant team over the last month and have the advantage of playing at home. San Francisco already had the edge in offensive skill talent even before the loss of Mitchell, which takes away a home-run element that’s so valuable in a matchup of elite teams. I haven’t picked the Ravens to lose a game since Week 7 and may not do it again if they prove me wrong on Monday night, but I suspect the shaky offensive tackle picture finally catches up to them this week. I’ll pick the 49ers to prevail in a tight 27-23 final that shouldn’t really change anyone’s perception of John Harbaugh’s team or its potential the rest of the way.  

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