NFL Thanksgiving Preview: Baltimore Ravens vs. San …

Can Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith be the difference makers tonight against the San Francisco 49ers?

In the first meeting between two head-coaching brothers in NFL history, today’s late game on Thanksgiving Day between the AFC North-leading Baltimore Ravens (7-3) and the San Francisco 49ers (9-1) undoubtedly has a great family feel to it to coincide with the holidays. Fortunately for football fans however, the comforting, family-friendly aspect of tonight’s contest will wrap up just before game time, as two of the league’s hardest-hitting squads guided by two of the most intense coaches in football seek to walk away with a crucial win on the national stage.

John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens are just about who everyone expects them to be; dominant on defense with a scary pass rush and veterans all around, and plenty of talent on the offensive side of the ball to win in any given match-up. Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers on the other hand have served as a realization of what a great coach can do for a team in just one season, taking a group of players once in the doldrums of the NFC West, arguably the worst division in football, and turning them into a confident, high-flying squad that feels they can win against anyone they face. And they have. Coming into tonight’s match-up winning 8 straight games with a 4-0 record on the road, the 49ers will get the biggest challenge of their season on the road against Baltimore, who remains a perfect 5-0 at home at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, MD. It’s almost fitting then that one Harbaugh brother will be responsible for breaking the winning streak of the other, but definitely don’t expect either one of these energetic and intense coaches to let the other brother walk away with a win without a serious fight.

Though the San Francisco 49ers are mired in the lowly NFC West, they’ve put together a season that in no way hinges on beating up their lesser divisional foes. Winning tough road games back East has been the crutch of the NFC West teams over the years, however San Francisco has managed to break that trend by defeating the Cincinnati Bengals, Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit Lions and the Washington Redskins on the road this year. With a war cry of ‘Who has it better than us?!?’, the 49ers have shown resiliency down to the wire in road games, winning each of their road match-ups by an average of just 5 points by staying within their game plan and executing without mistakes through the 4th quarter of play. Alex Smith (1976 yards, 13:4 TD-to-INT ratio,  %62.4 passing), the 49ers starting quarterback, has certainly embodied that change of attitude by limiting his mistakes and making smart, not always flashy plays while utilizing a host of offensive weapons around him. While there’s no question that running back Frank Gore is as usual a key piece of the 49er attack (189 carries, 870 yards, 5 TDs), it’s been the step-up play under center of Smith this season that has made all the difference in the win-loss column.

While it’s a glaring fact that the Francisco 49ers rank 27th in the league in the passing game (188.3 yards/game), and goes up against a Baltimore Ravens secondary tonight that is 7th in the NFL (allowing just 211.3 yards) against opposing quarterbacks, it’s been the 49ers ability to mix-and-match between passing and rushing that has proved effective, with a smarter, more short-yardage approach to whittle down opposing defenses. With talented receivers including tight end Vernon Davis, who leads the team in receptions and TD catches, and Michael Crabtree who is quickly coming into his own (fresh off a 7 catch, 120 yard night against Arizona), San Francisco’s passing game will definitely have an impact one way or another in tonight’s game, especially as they’ll likely be forced to utilize more dump-outs in the flats to Frank Gore, and more short passes over the middle to try and break up the Ray Lewis-led Ravens defense. Baltimore is very, very good at stopping the run with the presence of linebackers like Lewis (team leader in tackles, and hopefully back for this game after missing last week with a foot injury), Terrell Suggs, and Jameel McClain, and along with veteran nose tackle Haloti Ngata they lead one of the best pass rushes in the game. Racking up 29 sacks on the year combined (tied for 4th in the NFL), a key to the Ravens game plan tonight will be the disruption of Alex Smith in the pocket, as forcing him to move on his feet has not always turned out well for the 49ers signal caller, even though he’s drastically improved his poise from a year ago. Also, with Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter leading the San Francisco running game to 6th in the NFL at 134 yards/carry, but with the Ravens ranking 5th against the run (93.2 yards) more pressure is going to be on Smith to find success in the passing game, as no doubt the defensive line and linebackers of the Baltimore Ravens playing at home will make the sledding tough going, regardless of which running back is getting the touches.

For the Baltimore offense on the other hand, they too will find tough going in the running game against the top-rated rush defense of the 49ers that is only allowing 73.9 yards/game this season. While Ray Rice has been a dominant force in both the running and passing game for the Ravens (158 carries for 663 yards and 8 TDs on the ground, 51 catches for 513 yards and 2 TDs in the air), the Joe Flacco-led Baltimore attack is going to have to spread the ball around more, and utilize their less featured performers against a defense that knows how to shut down the most-used offensive threats on the field. Notably last week’s stand-out Torrey Smith (6 catches, 165 yards and a TD against Cincy), who is averaging over 20 yards a catch as the deep man, could be one threat alongside star wide-out Anquan Boldin that could be a big difference maker tonight. San Francisco does not have a great secondary, allowing 249.2 passing yards to opposing receivers, and utilizing Smith, and the recently returned Lee Evans could prove to be a key factor in tonight’s game, as the 49ers cover well against tight ends, but have struggled with big, physical receivers. Perhaps the most important for Baltimore in tonight’s match-up is winning the battle of mistakes, and that starts with Joe Flacco. If he can continue to keep the INTs low, and have success downfield (the Ravens are 5-0 when Flacco goes over 260 yards passing, and 7-1 when over 250, regardless of TD:INT ratio), Baltimore could put themselves in the driver’s seat at home in this tough match-up, although finding the endzone could prove to be more of a challenge than expected.

Betting Lines for San Francisco vs. Baltimore at TopBet.com

In a very well matched game, one can expect very tight odds at one of the best online sportsbooks reviewed here, and for betting on tonight’s game at TopBet.com, we find the host team Baltimore Ravens getting the slight edge at -170 odds on the money line while San Francisco comes in as underdog at +150 odds. Against the spread, the margin stands at 3.5 points in favor of the Ravens, with the 49ers needing to cover by more than a field goal to push a win towards the underdog pickers here. Expecting a very defensive-minded football game tonight, the over/under stands at a miniscule 40 points, but with Baltimore’s typically shutdown defense allowing more than 20 points per game in each their last 4 outings, and San Francisco averaging 24.8 points per contest during their win streak, the over bet could be a good pick to chase, albeit one that will likely come down to the wire.

Our Pick to Win:

This is perhaps one of the toughest outright picks to win we’ve had during this year’s NFL Football campaign, and with two outstanding defenses, two great head coaches, and two programs with good momentum going head-to-head, I’m certainly not ruling out an overtime session here in Baltimore tonight. While in evenly matched games I typically like to lean on the host team, San Francisco has shown plenty of guts on the road this season, and no doubt will have a good game plan for shutting down the Baltimore offense tonight. Baltimore on the other hand could prevail if Joe Flacco can exploit the weaker 49er secondary, and find success in the red zone against a tough 49er D-line. Nonetheless, a pick has to be made, and ours has to take the team with more all-around experience (including at head coach) in big games like this. That means Baltimore gets the win at home tonight in a close one, 24-20.

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