Five thoughts on the Ravens' 20-17 win over the San Francisco 49ers Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium:
Whatever you do, don't call this an ugly win. No, the Ravens didn't pile up the points, as they have in so many recent games. No, Lamar Jackson didn't dazzle the other team and set a slew of records. Yes, the rainy, miserable weather probably kept both teams from playing their best. But here's what happened: The white-hot Ravens ran into a team that was just as hot, just as good, just as confident, just as tough. The result was a dead-even "heavyweight title bout" game, complete with both teams hitting hard and making championship-caliber plays on both sides of the ball. The challenge became finding a way to win, being resourceful enough to make the plays that made the difference. And the Ravens were better at that. Barely better, but enough to get the job done. With the score tied late, their defense made a key stop instead of giving in. Their head coach won a key fourth-down gamble instead of playing scared. Their offense moved into field goal range instead of sputtering. And they had an All-Pro kicker who could win the game. None of it was luck or happenstance or anything other than using what they've got, who they are, to swing that dead-even game in their favor. Ugly? Please. I'd call it a beautiful win against what looked to me like the toughest opponent the Ravens have faced in 2019.
You knew it was coming at some point – that day when the Ravens' offense didn't look so revolutionary. Well, this was it. The 49ers' top-ranked defense did a good job against what I'll call the non-Lamar Jackson rushing game, which totaled just 77 yards on 22 carries. That meant Jackson needed to make plays with his arm, but he struggled with his accuracy. His description of his day as a passer: "Terrible." Yes, he was as dangerous as ever when he ran, totaling 101 yards on 16 carries, but the 49ers' defense contained him on many scrambles, hit him hard all day and forced him into a key turnover, a fumble, in the third quarter. Bottom line, Baltimore was kept out of the end zone in the game's final 41 minutes and managed just three points in the second half. That doesn't sound like a winning scenario, but to Jackson's great credit, he remained undeterred and prevailed in the end by making several big throws and runs to set up Justin Tucker's game-winning field goal.
My two cents on the many fourth-down gambles that eventually determined the game: I wasn't a big fan of the Ravens going for it on fourth-and-5 at the San Francisco 40 with 9:41 to play. I wasn't a big fan of the play the 49ers ran on fourth-and-1 at the Baltimore 35 a few minutes later. (They tried a pass, which was batted away, on a day when they averaged 6.0 yards per carry on the ground.) But I was very much in favor of the Ravens going for it on fourth-and-1 at their own 44 with the score tied and 4:41 to play. Even though he'd just lost such a gamble, it was no surprise Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh took another risk, as he has benefitted from coaching aggressively all season – the Ravens have the NFL's best fourth-down conversion rate – and Jackson is the ultimate weapon in such situations. Also, giving the ball back to the 49ers at that point was NOT a good idea, given how they were moving it. Jackson stepped under center for a change and converted the fourth down with a simple quarterback sneak, as his offensive line produced more than enough push. Maintaining possession there eventually decided the game. "We had the ball, kept the ball, and in big games like this, who has the ball at the end can make the difference," Ravens guard Marshal Yanda said.
The defense didn't have a day to remember. In the pouring rain, it had issues with tackling, normally a strength, especially in the first half. The 49ers had major success attacking the edges of the interior with running back Raheem Mostert, a former Raven. (Remember him? Didn't think so.) Mostert, normally a backup, rushed for 146 yards, averaging 7.7 per carry. Meanwhile, San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo also made his share of plays in the passing game, missing on just six of his 21 attempts. But though the 49ers successfully moved the ball, the Ravens' defense didn't break, making a handful of stops down the stretch. The 49ers were denied on eight of 12 third-down chances and didn't score a touchdown in the game's final 39 minutes. Marlon Humphrey (seven tackles) and Chuck Clark (seven tackles, forced fumble) led the way, but it took a group effort, as 19 different Baltimore players registered either a tackle, a sack, a pass defended or a quarterback hit. Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale is really shuffling his personnel in and out.
Quick Hits: The Ravens allowed an opening-drive touchdown for the first time in 2019, which meant they trailed in a game for the first time since the second quarter in Seattle on Oct. 20. That's a span of 18 quarters, and for the record, they weren't behind for long Sunday. They scored a tying touchdown six minutes later and never trailed again … One stat that defines how tough this game was? The Ravens only traveled 34 yards on the drive that set up Tucker's game-winning field goal, but it took them more than six minutes to go that far … The Ravens' wide receivers combined for just three receptions worth 18 yards, but tight end Hayden Hurst stepped up with three catches for 21 yards, including a couple clutch grabs that earned him a game ball … At the end of the first half, the 49ers' Robbie Gould missed a field goal try that was just two yards longer than Tucker's game-winner. Tucker's cleared the crossbar with plenty to spare, by the way. Gould's was partially blocked.