BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Ravens entered Sunday’s heavyweight bout with the San Francisco 49ers as winners of seven straight.
The Ravens had been steamrolling teams. They won their last five games by an average of 28 points, which included matchups with the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots. The three most recent victories came by an average of more than 36 points, featuring the Houston Texans and Los Angeles Rams.
The Seahawks entered the game 5-1, and the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots came into Baltimore undefeated. The Texans hold first place in the AFC South and the Rams still feature a bulk of last year’s team that lost to New England in the Super Bowl.
The run of unprecedented dominance ended Sunday when the Ravens needed to win ugly to take down the 49ers at a cold and wet M&T Bank Stadium. The 20-17 victory was unlike the last five of Baltimore’s franchise-record eight game winning streak.
“They’re a great team in the league, and this was a great win for us,” running back Mark Ingram said. “It wasn’t pretty, but we were able to gut it out, and that’s what great teams do.”
The Ravens (10-2) are have the best record through 12 games in franchise history. They currently hold first place in the entire AFC following the Patriots’ loss to the Texans Sunday night and are on track for the first No. 1 seed in team history. Baltimore owns a three-game lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North.
“We’re just a strong team. Ever since I was growing up, that’s what the Ravens have been – a team [that’s] hard to beat. A lot of people wanted to beat the Ravens,” quarterback Lamar Jackson said of the gauntlet of top teams the Ravens have faced recently. “I’m glad it’s back the same way, but we’ve just got to keep it going because it’s ‘Any Given Sunday,’ so we’ve just got to play.”
The 49ers entered Sunday with a 10-1 record and regarded by many pundits as the NFC’s best team. Others speculated the game could be a Super Bowl preview, and it sure lived up to the hype.
“To win a game like that is really valuable. We expect – as Lamar said – we expect every game to be just like that. And sometimes they’re not, but the ones that count, and the ones that are, you have to be ready for,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “Our guys approached the week of work just that way, and they were ready for it.”
When the Ravens struggled Sunday, it brought to light just how dominant they have been over the past month. Baltimore’s first drive of the game stalled, causing it to punt. Punter Sam Koch had been utilized just twice in the previous three contests, and both times came after backup quarterback Robert Griffin III had replaced Jackson with the game well in hand. The Ravens had not punted with Jackson in the game since the win over New England on Nov. 3 – a run of 21 straight drives.
When the 49ers struck first in the opening quarter Sunday, Baltimore trailed for the first time since the third quarter of the Seahawks game on Oct. 20.
“It was really two good football teams. Give San Francisco a lot of credit. They have a really good football team,” guard Marshal Yanda said afterward. “You grind it out and that is championship football. It comes down to one possession, or that one turnover, or that game winning field goal. When you play good teams like that, it usually comes down to the last possession. We had the ball at the end, and we had the game winner. That is usually how those games go.”
The Ravens needed a fourth-down stop and a fourth-down conversion in the game’s closing minutes. Jackson delivered on the game-clinching drive to set up Justin Tucker’s winning 49-yard field goal despite an afternoon that did not compare to other games in his MVP-caliber season. Baltimore’s third-ranked rush defense was gashed for 174 yards on the ground – the second highest total it had allowed all season.
“These games are needed,” defensive tackle Michael Pierce, who missed the previous two games with an ankle injury, said. “When you’re trying to go on a run and get to the playoffs, you never expect a blowout, and you need to be in those tight games to see how players respond at some point. Today was pivotal, and I think a lot of guys proved that we can step up when the time calls for it.”
The Ravens have shown how good they are with the recent run of blowouts. On Sunday, they proved they can also win a dogfight.
“This is the NFL, so each and every game, you’re going to go in prepared, ready for a dogfight,” Jackson said. “This one here, it was a dogfight that came down to fourth down [and a] field goal. We were ready, but at the same time, you’ve got to get ready each and every game because you don’t know what [will] happen.”
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