Takeaways from Ravens vs. 49ers
In a soggy matchup at M&T Bank Stadium, the battle of the NFL's best came down to a field goal.
The Ravens inched out a 20-17 win over the San Francisco 49ers yesterday, improving to 10-2 for the first time in franchise history. It's Baltimore's eighth straight win, the longest winning streak during a single season in team history.
More importantly, the victory and a Patriots loss later in the evening to the Texans jumped the Ravens into the No. 1 seed in the AFC. If the season ended today, Baltimore would have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
"After a long run of blowouts, the Ravens proved they could win a dogfight against an opponent that matched them in almost every way," The Baltimore Sun's Childs Walker wrote.
Here are some of pundits' takeaways from the win
'No More Debate' That Ravens Are NFL's Best Team
After Sunday's win, ESPN's Jamison Hensley said there's "no more debate" that the Ravens are the best team in the NFL.
"What else do the Ravens have to prove during this regular season?" Hensley wrote. "Baltimore has dominated the Seattle Seahawks, who are tied for the second-best record in the NFC; the New England Patriots, the defending Super Bowl champions and current top seed in the AFC; the Houston Texans, who lead the AFC South; and the Rams, who are nine months removed from playing in the Super Bowl."
"I think they're the best team in the NFL," NBC Sports' Rodney Harrison said. "Because they beat San Francisco, and they can beat you in many different ways. Like if you say, 'Hey, we're going to try to take away the run,' Lamar [Jackson] can beat you from the pocket."
NFL.com's Judy Battista also agrees that the best team resides in Baltimore right now.
The Ravens had dominated their opponents during their toughest stretch of the schedule, but Sunday was a different challenge. Neither team led by more than seven points and pundits were impressed with Baltimore's ability to grind out a win in poor weather conditions.
"The 49ers did to the Ravens what the Ravens have done to other teams, jumping to an immediate lead, moving inexorably on the ground, creating a key turnover and living off the poise of their young quarterback," Walker wrote.
"But each time the 49ers punched, the Ravens punched back. Whether that meant safety Chuck Clark's early strip-sack to set up a touchdown or a clutch defensive stand in the fourth quarter or Jackson's fourth-down sneak to sustain the game-winning drive, they summoned the necessary answers. On a day when everything did not go their way, they beat one of the only other contenders for best team in the NFL."
The Ravens can clinch the AFC North Sunday in Buffalo with a win and a Steelers loss/tie or a tie and a Steelers loss.
Matchup of Super Bowl Favorites Deserves a Rematch
The matchup between the NFL's top two teams lived up to the hype. It was entertaining, as both sides exchanged blow-for-blow in a playoff-like atmosphere, leaving pundits hoping for a rematch in Miami.
"While the game was entertaining, it was more than that," SB Nation's James Brady wrote. "It felt like our first playoff game of the year."
"Many called it a potential Super Bowl preview, pitting the league's best and most unusual offense against a frightfully fast and gifted defensive front," Walker wrote. "Despite a driving, chilly rain, the combatants lived up to the hype. Neither team emerged clearly superior."
The weather seemed to be the only complaint, as downpour conditions limited both offenses to just 270 combined passing yards. Yet, Jackson still rushed for 101 yards and provided another ankle-breaking play to add to his highlight reel.
"I'd love to see that game without weather being an issue, to really get a feel [for] who the better team is," NBC Sports' Mike Florio said. "Because I think the advantage did swing toward Baltimore, given the conditions."
"Both will be in the postseason, with some big games ahead of them," Brady wrote. "And if they're to meet again, it will need to be in Super Bowl LIV. It would be a helluva rematch."
Fourth Down Aggressiveness Continues to Pay Off
Live or die by the fourth down conversion.
That's the mantra the Ravens have followed this season, and their analytically driven approach (and execution) has made them one of the most successful teams on fourth down this season.
On Sunday, they converted 2-of-3 fourth downs, including a 4th-and-1 from their own 44-yard line on the game's final drive to set up Justin Tucker's game-winner.
"Admittedly, it's easy to maintain this aggressive attitude when Jackson and Mark Ingram are almost effortlessly running over opponents in blowouts," Ravens Wire's Chuck Mills wrote. "However, it's a far tougher call when they're in close games and facing top defenses. Against San Francisco — who made Baltimore fight for every yard they got — Harbaugh showed a lot of faith in his offense and quarterback to get the job done."
Jackson also found Hayden Hurst for a 2-yard gain on 4th-and-2 midway through the second quarter that led to a Tucker 30-yard field goal.
These weren't easy calls to make. They were gutsy, with the outcome of the game determined by the result. But Harbaugh's aggressive mentality and trust paid off, even when the result didn't.
On the drive before Tucker's game-winning kick, the Ravens turned the ball over on downs when Jackson's pass intended for Mark Andrews on fourth-and-5 fell incomplete. The 49ers took over with good field position and drove the ball within field goal range to the Ravens' 35-yard line.
The conditions forced Head Coach Kyle Shanahan to go for it on 4th-and-1, and Chris Wormley's tipped pass gave the Ravens the ball back for the game-winning drive.
The Ravens now have a league-leading 15 fourth-down conversions this season, as many as the rest of the AFC North combined.
The 'Secret' Weapon That Stalled Nick Bosa and Propelled Lamar Jackson
For the second straight week, one of the NFL's top defenders was limited in the box score.
Niners' rookie defensive end Nick Bosa recorded just one tackle and was absent in the pass rush against the Ravens. It's becoming a staple for the offensive line in Baltimore that's been the 'secret' weapon that's propelled Jackson this season.
"So it goes for this group of offensive linemen, who can be considered something of a group of misfits," Sports Illustrated's Conor Orr wrote. "And yet, on Sunday against the most athletic defensive front in football and the league's No. 1 total D, they managed to create some situational advantages that helped Baltimore edge out a win, both with athleticism that is rarely talked about and pure power blocking against an opponent with more defensive line talent than any team in the league."
The Ravens faced two of the NFL's most athletic front fours in consecutive weeks, and they won both matchups largely without starting center Matt Skura.
In his first start, undrafted rookie Patrick Mekari filled in impressively.
"Mekari, making the first start of his career, played well and was a key cog on an offensive line that allowed just one sack, two quarterback hits and held Bosa to one tackle," The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec wrote.
For Orr and Penn Live's Aaron Kasinitz, one of the most impressive plays for the offensive line was the 4th-and-1 quarterback sneak on the final drive.
"While these are obviously plays that carry a significant advantage for the offense, the shoddy field conditions and talent level on the defensive line probably skewed the odds a bit," Orr wrote.
Added Kasinitz: "On a wet field on a rainy day, it was the Ravens' offensive line that captured an individual triumph by plowing forward when they most desperately needed to gain a yard. A failed conversion would've given the 49ers the ball on the edge of field-goal range, gifting San Francisco a golden chance at a go-ahead score in the game's closing minutes."
More Debate Over Pass Interference Calls and No-Calls
Officiating has been under the microscope this season (though that's nothing new), and two plays garnered more debate on what constitutes a pass interference call.
On 4th-and-1 in the third quarter, the referees flagged Marlon Humphrey for PI on Emmanuel Sanders that led to a 49ers field goal. On the ensuing drive, Jackson's pass intended for Andrews fell incomplete, but Niners' safety Jimmie Ward made clear contact with Andrews before the ball arrived.
Head Coach John Harbaugh challenged the non-call on the Andrews play and lost. It was the first time this season Harbaugh has challenged such a play.
"That seemed clear and obvious to me, but obviously not enough to overturn it," Harbaugh said. "So, that's the way they do it. I think you had to challenge that in that situation."
The ruling sparked plenty of discussions. Some argued Ward had a right to make a play on the ball, while others claimed there was clear contact before Andrews had a chance to make the catch.
FOX Sports' Rules Analyst Dean Blandino said during the broadcast that because Ward played the ball through the shoulder of Andrews, not the back, that's likely where Al Riveron and the league's officiating crew differentiated between a call and no-call.
But later in the game between the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers, a similar play was called for PI.
Clark Has Been a Defensive Unsung Hero
Only two players were on the field for all of the defensive snaps on Sunday. One was Earl Thomas, and the other was Chuck Clark.
Clark quietly had one of the best performances of the day, totaling seven tackles and a strip-sack on Jimmy Garoppolo. Walker gave credit to how well the third-year safety has played in relief of Tony Jefferson this season.
"Clark has played almost every defensive snap over the past seven games and has graded as one of the league's top-10 cover safeties, according to Pro Football Focus," Walker wrote. "... Anyone can appreciate the talents of a Jackson or a Marcus Peters, but an NFL roster doesn't work without people like Clark."
- Tucker told NBC Sports' Peter King he was hoping his game-winning kick would be from 50 yards, not 49. "Fifty's a nice round number," Tucker said. "And there's slightly more glory making a 50-yarder than 49."
- Orlando Brown Jr. wasn't happy about some of the hits 49ers defenders made on Jackson: "I think they definitely were trying to take advantage of [Jackson], man, as far as once he got past the line of scrimmage or running out of bounds. They wanted to get him down, and whatever it was, get as many touches and as many hits on him as possible."
- Baltimore Beatdown's Kyle Barber named Hurst one of his winners. The second-year tight end had three crucial catches in the win, including a fourth-down conversion.
- Chris Moore's save on punt coverage deserves a special teams game ball.
- FOX Sports' Charles Davis made his argument for Jackson as the clear-cut MVP favorite.