49ers vs. Ravens: 7 Players Who Will Decide Outcome of Harbaugh Bowl
The NFL's most intriguing Thanksgiving matchup will be between the 9-1 San Francisco 49ers and the 7-3 Baltimore Ravens. Undoubtedly, most of the attention will be focused on the the fact that 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh is squaring off with brother John Harbaugh, coach of the Ravens.
However, there is much more at stake than a sibling rivalry. The 49ers are playing for a possible No. 1 seed in the NFC, while the Ravens are vying for the AFC's No. 1 slot. Thursday's clash will go a long way in deciding both conference races.
Here are the seven most important players in 49ers-Ravens game.
49ers running back Frank Gore's production has slipped the last two weeks, but he's still having a fantastic season. In 10 games, he's accounted for 870 yards and five scores.
Baltimore's run defense has been stingy in 2011, only allowing 3.3 yards per attempt. The 49ers rely on the running game, so Gore will need to penetrate the Ravens defense to put points on the board.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is averaging over 250 pass yards per game, a career high. However, with only 12 touchdowns to eight interceptions, he isn't exactly setting the world on fire.
The 49ers have the NFL's best rushing defense, giving up fewer than 74 yards a contest. They should be able to neutralize Ray Rice, making the Ravens one-dimensional.
In that case, Flacco would need to beat the Niners with his arm. In what figures to be a low-scoring game, one big touchdown or turnover by Flacco can make all the difference.
Alex Smith has thrown for 509 yards in his past two games, his best two-game stretch of the season. Smith's improvement as a passer will be challenged by the Ravens pass defense, which has only allowed seven touchdown throws all year.
Jim Harbaugh likely won't ask Smith to carry the offense. That said, he will need to play smart and efficiently to not turn the ball over.
Ray Lewis was sidelined with a foot injury during the Ravens' last game. Lewis anticipates that he'll be ready for Thursday's game, but that remains to be seen.
Having their emotional leader on the field would be a huge boost for Baltimore.
There was a time when people started throwing around the "bust" label with former first-round wideout Michael Crabtree. Fortunately, in his third year, Crabtree is starting to come into his own.
After gaining 120 yards on seven grabs against the Arizona Cardinals, Crabtree is now the 49ers' leading receiver in 2011. If the Niners can manage a big passing play against the Ravens, it will likely involve Crabtree.
The Ravens have an emerging wide receiver of their own in Torrey Smith. The rookie, opposite Anquan Boldin, has averaged over 20 yards a reception en route to 590 yards and five touchdowns.
Smith has been extremely inconsistent. For instance, he went from having 152 yards in Week 3 to just one in Week 4.
Whether Smith hits or misses will help determine the success of the Ravens offense.
In the end, this game should be a fierce defensive battle. As such, the 49ers will have to rely on their best defensive player.
Patrick Willis is having another Pro Bowl-caliber year, accumulating 85 tackles so far. The inside linebacker is the leader of the Niners' vaunted front seven. San Francisco will need him to come up huge to win.