49ers vs. Ravens: 10 Keys to the Harbaugh Bowl

Bryant WestCorrespondent INovember 23, 2011

49ers vs. Ravens: 10 Keys to the Harbaugh Bowl

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    This Thanksgiving, grab yourself an extra slice of pumpkin pie and get ready for the Harbaugh Bowl.

    In the NFL's first meeting between two brothers as head coaches, Jim Harbaugh's 10-1 San Francisco 49ers head to Baltimore to face off against brother John's 7-3 Ravens. Week 12 in the NFL features some exciting games, but none as contentious as this one.

    These are two teams built in a very similar fashion and they play a very similar game. Both squads feature elite NFL defenses and play tough, hard-nosed football. You won't ever see the 49ers or the Ravens giving up, so expect a tough battle to the end in Thursday's contest. 

    But on this day of thanks, one of these brothers (and their team) will walk away losers. Let's take a look at the keys to the game for each of the teams.

For San Francisco: Alex Smith

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    The popular phrase for Smith is "game manager." A better term is "one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the league."

    No, Smith won't explode for four touchdowns and 300 yards, but he is a completely different player than the Alex Smith of old. He makes smart decisions, doesn't turn the ball over and helps move the offense forward.

    Over the past two weeks with Frank Gore slowed by injury, Smith has shown that San Francisco can win by relying on the passing game.

    With the Ravens exceptionally tough defense, Smith will have his biggest test yet. The 49ers need Smith to keep up his smart football if they hope to win on Thursday.

For Baltimore: Consistency

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    Will the real Baltimore Ravens please report to the field?

    The Ravens continue to produce excellent wins—two victories over the Steelers and a Week 11 31-24 win in Cincinnati—yet lose to teams like Jacksonville (12-7 in Week 7) and Seattle (22-17 in Week 10).

    Baltimore can't afford to play anything but their "A" game on Thursday. San Francisco isn't a team that makes mistakes, so Baltimore can't make any either.

For San Francisco: Michael Crabtree

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    Michael Crabtree had 120 yards in the win against the Cardinals, his first game this season where he's nabbed over 100 yards.

    While Crabtree has continued to show flashes of brilliance thanks to his athletic abilities, he hasn't been able to consistently put it together or live up to the expectations he was given when he was selected with the 10th overall pick in 2009.

    San Francisco needs consistency in their passing weapons, and if Crabtree can get it all together he could propel San Francisco to an even higher level. They'll definitely need him to be at his best against Baltimore's dominating defense.

For Baltimore: Ray Lewis

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    According to the Baltimore Raven's official site, Lewis participated in a limited capacity on Tuesday. His status for Thursday's game is still up in the air.

    "I am taking every opportunity to get treatment on my foot to prepare to play on Thursday," Lewis said in a statement. "...I want to play Thursday night, and I am making some progress."

    Losing the future Hall of Fame linebacker and the heart of their defense would be a huge blow for the Ravens, who need all the help they can get to stop the 49ers' dangerous running game led by Frank Gore.

    Lewis missed the Ravens' contest against Cincinnati, the first time he's missed a game since 2007.

For San Francisco: Crowd Control

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    San Francisco is 4-0 on the road so far this season, with wins in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Detroit and Washington.

    Needless to say, they've seen their fare share of rowdy crowds on the road. San Francisco has practiced while listening to extensively loud music in order to get used to playing in an oppressively deafening environment.

    Still, Baltimore has an extremely vocal fanbase. San Francisco has to stay composed and not let the crowd get to them, or better yet, take them out of the game by scoring early and often.

For Baltimore: Limiting Joe Flacco's Mistakes

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    Joe Flacco has 12 touchdowns so far this season, but he also has eight interceptions and 10 fumbles on the season.

    San Francisco's defense is fantastic at capitalizing on their opponents' mistakes. They have a league-high 26 takeaways on the season, including 15 interceptions. Last week against the Cardinals, San Francisco's defense intercepted the ball three times and forced two fumbles.

    Flacco must limit his mistakes or San Francisco will take the game away from his Ravens.

For San Francisco: David Akers

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    David Akers returned to Earth in Week 11, when he missed three of his six field goal attempts, two of which were blocked.

    Aker's incredible range—he had hit 23 of his 25 attempts before Week 11— is a huge weapon for San Francisco and one they desperately need accurate for their Thursday contest. Akers has hit all five of his attempts from 50 yards or more this season.

    Akers struggled early against the Cardinals but San Francisco had plenty of chances against the average Arizona defense. They won't get nearly as many chances to score against Baltimore, so they need to take advantage of every opportunity.

For Baltimore: Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith

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    San Francisco's secondary is tied for second in the league with 15 interceptions, but the good news for Baltimore is that the 49ers continue to give up yards in the air.

    The 49ers give up 249 passing yards a game, which is 23rd most in the NFL. If Flacco can make the smart passes, the Ravens have a good chance with their passing game.

    This could mean great things for Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, Baltimore's leading receivers. Boldin has 684 yards and three touchdowns, while Smith has 590 yards and five touchdowns. Both have the ability to make huge plays and should give the 49ers secondary a real tough challenge come Thursday. 

For Both Teams: Establishing a Running Game

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    Both San Francisco and Baltimore have truly elite defenses, but they also both have excellent running backs.

    Can either San Francisco's Frank Gore or Baltimore's Ray Rice manage to bust through their opponent's line and gain huge numbers? That is a key for both squads.

    Rice has 663 yards on 158 attempts for 4.2 yards per carry and has racked up eight rushing touchdowns. He also has 513 receiving yards so far this season.

    Gore has 870 rushing yards this season on 189 attempts, good for 4.8 yards a carry. He has five touchdowns on the year.

    San Francisco ranks first in least rushing yards allowed; Baltimore ranks third. Both running backs should have a difficult time gaining yards, but establishing a running game is critical for both teams.

For Both Teams: Coach's Poise

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    This will most certainly be an emotional event for both coaches, although both will be likely sick of fielding questions about each other when Thursday rolls around.

    Both coaches maintain an air of poise on the field and need to keep that up now more than ever. Whichever coach has better prepared his team for this titanic matchup will win this game.

    Both coaches should lose their air of calm as soon as the game is over. Can you imagine how exciting their postgame handshake will be?