The Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers are set to face off on Christmas night in a highly anticipated matchup between the AFC and NFC’s top teams. With MVP candidates Lamar Jackson and Brock Purdy leading their squads, this game could serve as a preview of what’s to come in Super Bowl LVIII.
Ravens Enter as Rare Underdogs Despite League-Best Record
The Ravens come into Week 16 with the best record in the NFL at 10-4. However, when the lines opened up, Baltimore was installed as a surprising underdog against the 49ers.
Team Record Spread
Ravens 10-4 +3.5
49ers 11-3 -3.5
Several Ravens players have vocalized feeling disrespected by their underdog status. Safety Kyle Hamilton noted that it added some extra motivation:
“We feel a little disrespected in that sense. I think we know we have a really good team, and very complete team. We’re excited to go show that…it adds a little fuel to the fire.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh also made it clear his team is up for the challenge:
“It’s something our guys will be very motivated to do — it’s going to put us on notice in terms of what we have to accomplish going forward.”
This game will be a test for Baltimore, having to go on the road in a hostile environment on primetime. But with how well the Ravens are playing lately, having won four straight, they have a great shot at pulling off the mini-upset.
Red-Hot 49ers Look to Continue Historic Run
On the other side, the 49ers come into this game scorching hot, having won nine straight games. San Francisco has established itself as arguably the most complete team in football, capable of dominating opponents with either their explosive offense or suffocating defense.
The catalyst behind the 49ers current run has been the emergence of rookie quarterback Brock Purdy. Since taking over as the starter in Week 13, Purdy has posted a pristine 115.8 passer rating while seamlessly running Kyle Shanahan’s offense. With Purdy playing beyond his years, San Francisco’s attack has looked virtually unstoppable.
The 49ers defense has also returned to elite form after some early season struggles adjusting to DeMeco Ryans taking over as coordinator. Over their last six games, they have allowed just 11.5 points per game.
Players and pundits alike recognize that San Francisco is currently playing at a historical level. Tight end George Kittle noted the team’s “storybook” run:
“It’s kind of storybook, almost like it’s been written, right? It’s like some higher power orchestrating all this, getting us to the perfect storm, getting us healthy, getting us playing our best ball going into the playoffs.”
Given how exceptional the 49ers have looked lately, it’s no surprise they opened as solid home favorites. However, the Ravens have proven throughout the years to never be an easy out under John Harbaugh.
Game Could Have Major Playoff Implications
This matchup is unprecedented for this point in the season, with both teams entering Week 16 tied for the best record in their respective conferences. The winner emerges with the inside track for the top seed and homefield advantage.
With Lamar Jackson and Brock Purdy also battling it out in the MVP race, this game carries some extra intrigue. A statement performance on the national stage from either quarterback could vault them to the award.
Beyond this season, this game provides a potential Super Bowl preview. As Brian Baldinger notes, all the ingredients are there:
“When’s the last time this happened? Where you get 14-3 versus 13-3 and neither team can clinch home-field advantage in Week 16 and it’s on Christmas night. And it’s Purdy vs Jackson. And it’s an offense that Kyle Shanahan has had 10 days to prepare for against a defense that can dominate anybody.”
While a lot can happen in the playoffs, these look like the most complete teams in each conference currently. It would be shocking if at least one doesn’t make it to the big game.
Lamar Jackson vs 49ers Defense
This game will likely come down to how well Lamar Jackson is able to attack an extremely fierce 49ers defense. Jackson’s one-of-a-kind playmaking ability makes Baltimore dangerous every time they have the ball. However, Robert Saleh’s unit finished 1st in EPA allowed and has shut down countless mobile QBs before. If the likes of Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw and Nick Bosa can contain Lamar, the 49ers should have a decisive edge. But if not, Jackson is fully capable of willing Baltimore to victory.
49ers Running Game vs Ravens Front Seven
Another pivotal battle will be between San Francisco’s elite rushing attack against Baltimore’s rugged run defense. The 49ers lead the NFL in yards per carry behind a dominant o-line and talented backs like Christian McCaffrey and Elijah Mitchell. However, the Ravens boast a fearsome front seven led by Roquan Smith and Calais Campbell that only allows 3.8 YPC (2nd best). If the 49ers can break off some chunk gains on the ground like usual though, it may be a long night for Baltimore.
Field position has always been critical for John Harbaugh’s teams and special teams is an area Baltimore takes particular pride in. The Ravens boast the NFL’s best kicker in Justin Tucker and an explosive return game spearheaded by Devin Duvernay. For their part, the 49ers have been solid if unspectacular on special teams this year. In what’s expected to be a tightly contested affair, the outcome could swing on a couple key special teams plays.
This is undoubtedly the game of the week, with the league’s most dominant teams and quarterbacks squaring off on the national stage. The Ravens have the talent to hang around, but beating a red-hot 49ers team on the road is an extremely tall task. In the end, San Francisco pulls away late with a few key Brock Purdy strikes as their complete team prevails 34-24. Regardless of the outcome though, this figures to be one for the ages and potentially a preview of Super Bowl LVIII. Buckle up for a Christmas classic!
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