NFL Nation: Five Things 49ers Ravens 2011

Five things to watch: 49ers-Ravens

November, 23, 2011
The San Francisco 49ers step onto the national stage Thursday, which means it's time to consider five things to watch in the most highly-anticipated game of the season for an NFC West team to this point:

[+] EnlargeJoe Staley
Geoff Burke/US PresswireHow will Joe Staley do against one of the league's best pass rushers in Terrell Suggs?
Special teams must bounce back. The 49ers' victory over the Arizona Cardinals last week looked good from afar, but this was easily the worst special-teams performance of the season for San Francsico. David Akers had two field-goal tries blocked. Akers missed another attempt. The 49ers incurred three penalties on their punt-coverage team. Ted Ginn Jr. averaged four yards per punt return and 21 yards per kickoff return, pedestrian numbers. All this came one week after coach Jim Harbaugh pointed to 49ers special-teams coach Brad Seely as a head-coaching candidate. Harbaugh's brother, John, became the Baltimore Ravens' head coach after making a name for himself coaching special teams. Seely will be looking for a bounce-back effort from his unit this week.

49ers left tackle Joe Staley vs. Terrell Suggs. Suggs has gone three games in a row without a sack for the first time since the 2009 season. Staley has been solid for the 49ers. Durability has been a concern for him the last two seasons, however. He made nine starts in 2009 and nine last season, suffering injuries both seasons. Staley has made all 10 starts this season. He now faces a tough matchup on a short week. I'll be watching to see how he fares and how well he holds up physically.

Patrick Willis on a national stage. The 49ers are playing in Ray Lewis' house. It'll be fitting, in a way, if Lewis' injury situation prevents him from playing. Willis, more than any other inside linebacker, appears positioned to pick up where Lewis eventually leaves off. Lewis has said so. The 49ers haven't gotten to play in many prime-time games since Willis arrived as a first-round pick in 2007. This stage provides an opportunity for Willis to show the nation what he's shown 49ers fans for years, that he's the best inside linebacker around.

Big hits from the safeties. Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson have been big hitters for the 49ers all season. The Ravens' Ed Reed continues to set a high standard for the position overall. The 49ers need continued feisty play from Whitner and Goldson, plus heightened awareness from them when the Ravens look for receiver Torrey Smith on deep passes.

The postgame handshake. The Harbaugh-against-Harbaugh storyline has already gotten tiring. The matchups on the field are so much more compelling, at least in my view. Still, I'll be interested in seeing the dynamic after the game given the overall competitiveness of the two. This would be an emotional game even without the sibling rivalry element. The sight of Jim Harbaugh untucking his shirt and dancing around the Ravens' field is one John Harbaugh surely wants to avoid.

Five things to watch: Ravens-49ers

November, 23, 2011
This Thanksgiving night contest features two division leaders: the San Francisco 49ers, who are on the verge of clinching the NFC West, and the Baltimore Ravens, who are tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers atop the AFC North. San Francisco has won eight straight games and hasn't lost since Sept. 18. The Ravens have won seven straight at M&T Bank Stadium, which is currently the second-longest home win steak in the NFL.

Here are five things to watch:

[+] EnlargeJoe Flacco
AP Photo/Nick WassJoe Flacco has been inconsistent in prime-time appearances so far this season. How will he fare against a tough San Francisco defense?
1. Ravens need to get off to a fast start. The 49ers are 4-0 in the Eastern time zone this season, but they are traveling cross country on four-days rest. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh said earlier this week that his team got "the short end of the straw" as far as scheduling, so it's in the head of the 49ers. San Francisco could get off to a sluggish start as a result. The Ravens have jumped on teams at the start of games, outscoring opponents, 62-30, in the first quarter. The Ravens are 28-5 under John Harbaugh when scoring first.

2. X-factor is Frank Gore. The Ravens' run defense ranks fifth in the NFL, but it's been Baltimore's undoing this season. In their past two losses, the Ravens have given up 100 yards to Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew and Seattle's Marshawn Lynch. Baltimore's focus will be stopping Gore, who has the most 100-yard games (29) over the past six years. To stop Gore, you need to be as physical as he is. Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis, who missed his first game last Sunday since 2007, has been limited in practice this week.

3. The decision-making of Alex Smith. One of the reasons for the 49ers' surprising success has been the play at quarterback. Smith just doesn't lose games. He has thrown four interceptions, which is the fewest among NFL quarterbacks with multiple starts. The Ravens thrive on creating turnovers and picked off Bengals rookie Andy Dalton three times Sunday. Since 2008, only the Green Bay Packers have more interceptions than the Ravens.

4. Which Joe Flacco will show up? The national television audience has seen the best and the worst of the Ravens quarterback. On Sunday Night Football against the New York Jets, Flacco didn't complete a pass in the second or third quarters. On "Monday Night Football" in Jacksonville, he went the first 40 minutes without recording a first down. And on Sunday night in Pittsburgh, he led the Ravens on a 92-yard winning drive in the final minutes of the game. It'll be interesting to see what kind of performance the Ravens will get out of Flacco against the NFL's 23rd-ranked pass defense.

5. Field-goal battle could heat up. The defenses for Baltimore and San Francisco have allowed the fewest offensive touchdowns this season. The Ravens have given up a league-low 13 offensive touchdowns, while the 49ers are right behind with 14 given up. This could mean a lot of field goals and possibly a lot of long-range field goals. San Francisco's David Akers has made all five of his kicks beyond 50 yards. Baltimore's Billy Cundiff has missed five of his six attempts from that range.