BALTIMORE — The San Francisco 49ers had used a simple formula for success all season.
A dominating defense, an effective running game, and efficient, mistake-free play had led them to an eight-game winning streak and the second-best record in the NFL.
For the most part, it’s the exact combination the Ravens used against them in a convincing 16-6 win on Thursday night.
Baltimore imposed its will on the 49ers by turning in one of its best defensive performances of the season and displaying just enough offense to improve to 8-3, the top mark in the AFC.
“You play the field-position game and never give them an opportunity to play on a short field,” coach John Harbaugh said. “If you [do] that, and you don’t make a mistake, you have a chance to beat the 49ers, and that’s about it.”
For the first time since their Week 1 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens did not turn the ball over, preventing the San Francisco offense from obtaining the good field position it needs to be successful. Baltimore stuffed running back Frank Gore and forced the 49ers to put the ball in the hands of quarterback Alex Smith.
At that point, it was all over as the Ravens tied a franchise record with nine sacks as Smith was overwhelmed by pressure from the Baltimore defensive front.
“It’s Thanksgiving, there’s a lot of turkey,” said defensive end Cory Redding, who had a career high 2 1/2 sacks. “We had to go out there and eat. And that’s the beauty of stopping the run; when you do that, you can pin your ears back and rush the passer. And we’ve got a lot of guys who are real great at rushing the passer.”
The story of the game took shape in the third quarter after the 49ers marched 46 yards to start the second half, settling for a 52-yard field goal by David Akers to tie it at 6-6. With the defense being on the field for the first 6:30 of the third quarter, the Ravens offense needed to respond. A three-and-out or a turnover would not only give the 49ers the opening they needed to seize control of the game, but it would put the Baltimore defense back on the field with little time to recuperate.
Quarterback Joe Flacco and the offense responded with a masterful 16-play, 76-yard drive to recapture any momentum the 49ers had built after the game-tying field goal and put the Ravens in the driver’s seat for the eventual victory. Flacco was 4-for-4 for 34 yards on third-down plays on the scoring drive in what catalyzed a 6-for-9 third-down conversion rate in the second half after the Ravens were successful just once out of six tries on third down in the first 30 minutes of play.
“When you have that kind of game plan, your line being so efficient on third downs, you have to come through,” said Flacco, who threw an 8-yard pass to Dennis Pitta for the only touchdown of the game to begin the fourth quarter. “We had a lot of guys come through for us and just made some big plays in those situations.”
The drive lasted 7:34, giving the Ravens defense enough rest to put even more heat on Smith as linebacker Terrell Suggs led the charge with three sacks, snapping a three-game stretch without any sacks for the Pro Bowl pass rusher.
Playing from behind and failing to get its heralded ground attack going, Ravens defenders could pin their ears back even more in protecting the lead and finishing off the Ravens’ sixth win in six tries at home this season.
“It was definitely our offense keeping the ball so long and sustaining drives and scoring points,” Suggs said. “Because then you’ve got to abort the run and throw the ball a little bit more.”
The Baltimore running game wasn’t spectacular, needing to run 35 times to gain 92 yards against the top-ranked run defense in the NFL, but the Ravens had enough success on the ground to stay true to their game plan. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron continued to feed the ball to Ray Rice (21 carries for 59 yards) and Ricky Williams (seven carries for 29 yards) to make the San Francisco defense respect the run and create space underneath for Flacco to connect with receivers to move the chains.
For as much as we like to draw comparisons to the 2000 Ravens whenever a Baltimore defense turns in a dominating performance, this one smelled of that same aura as San Francisco was overwhelmed by the pass rush and was held to just 74 yards on 21 rushing attempts.
And, oh yeah, the Ravens defense did all of it without future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis, who was relegated to the sideline after missing his second straight game with a toe injury. With performances such as what we saw on Thursday night, Baltimore might be more inclined to wait as long as it needs to in getting the 36-year-old’s toe right before sending him back to the field.
When you finish the game with more sacks than your opponent has points, you know it’s a special night.
Yes, the 49ers had to travel across the country to play a game on a very short week, but the Ravens bruised and battered a team that had been used to doing the same exact thing to its opponents all season. It wasn’t the best offensive performance of the season, but the Ravens were efficient and held true to what they wanted to do entering the meeting with the upstart 49ers.
With two wins in five days against two playoff-caliber opponents, the Ravens have put themselves in the enviable position of deciding their playoff fate with five games remaining in the regular season. Home-field advantage and a No. 1 seed is in their crosshairs as the Ravens enter the month of December. They’ll now have 10 days to rest before their next challenge awaits against a sub-.500 opponent on the road.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
“Now, we have to conquer a game in Cleveland, one that’s been plaguing us all year,” Harbaugh said. “You’ve all written about it extensively. It’s a big challenge we have, but we have an opportunity now to get healthy, and that’s what we have to take advantage of in the next couple days.”