Well, that was the easy part. The San Francisco 49ers have completed half of their Thanksgiving week doubleheader, strangling the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday 23-7. Now comes the difficult part, flying 3000 miles to play 4 days later in Baltimore, for the Harbaugh family thanksgiving dinner. This will most likely be a slug fest of playoff like proportions. The stakes aren’t as high, but the intensity should be.
But first things first, the pre thanksgiving game last Sunday. Before the stress of the packed airports & creepy uncles was the calm before the storm, the Cardinals. Arizona was nice enough to start QB John Skelton, who was flat out horrendous. Before being pulled like a struggling starting pitcher he went 6-19 for 99 yards and 3 picks. He was like Tim Tebow without the rushing yards. I imagined him having the same look on his face Jonathan Sanchez does after walking the bases loaded for the third time in 3 innings, minus the waxed eye brows.
The Niners defense was typically smothering, shutting out the Cards until someone named Richard Bartel came into replace Skelton and threw a relatively meaningless touchdown. A touchdown that most likely should have been intercepted by CB Carlos Rogers. Apparently that’s the Rogers Redskins fans have been telling us about, because up until that play he had been catching everything.
The stats were unbelievably skewed in the Niners favor. The Cards managed just 11 first downs and just over 15 minutes of time of possession. San Francisco is not losing any games in which the defense is barely on the field for a quarter.
WR Kyle Williams looked sharp on Sunday in having his best career game in the NFL. I honestly think he could be a replacement for WR Ted Ginn as the 49ers third option at wide out. I love Ginn as a returner but as a receiver he scares the living crap out of me . His drop and subsequent interception against the New York Giants could be an ominous sign of things to come. Ginn is super quick and has the ability to get open, which normally would be a good thing. However, with his hands it could actually be a liability. I fear one of his drops could come at a very wrong time in a very crucial situation. Williams appears to be quick, run good routes and have good hands. While this is in a limited sampling, Kyle could be the replacement for injured WR Joshua Morgan.
WR Michael Crabtree had one of the best games of his 3 year career, pulling in 7 catches for 120 yards and QB Alex Smith narrowly missed a wide open Crabtree on what would have been a TD catch in the 2nd quarter. Crabtree schooled rookie Patrick Peterson for much of the day, going so far as to break 2 of Petersons tackles on the same play.
While the Niners didn’t play great, the win over the Cards was a dominating performance over an inferior opponent. They will most likely have to raise their game if they want to walk out of Baltimore with a victory. The 49ers and Ravens are very similar teams. The Ravens depend greatly on LB Ray Lewis, the games best middle linebacker who wears number 52 and is not named Patrick Willis. A huge factor in this weeks match up will be if Ray is even available to play. Lewis, in addition to leading the team in tackles, also calls all the defensive plays. With him out of the line up on Sunday, the Ravens apparently had some communication issues on the defensive side, leading to big plays for the Cincinnati Bengals.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Ravens rely heavily on RB Ray Rice, much like the Niners rely on RB Frank Gore. With the 49ers packing the league’s best run defense for the trip to Maryland, the Ravens might have to rely on QB Joe Flacco to move the ball. Depending upon which Flacco shows up, this could be a good thing or a bad thing. Will it be the Flacco who led Baltimore to 2 wins over the arch rival Pittsburgh Steelers, including that epic game ending drive a few weeks ago in Pittsburgh? Or will it be the Flacco who posted a QB rating of 37 against the Jets? Twice this year when Ray Rice has struggled the Ravens have gone completely away from Rice and put the load on Flacco’s shoulders. Rice ran just 8 times in a loss to Jacksonville, while Flacco dropped back 41 times. Later in the season in a visit to Seattle, the Ravens handed Rice the ball just 5 times while Flacco dropped back a ridiculous 55 times. These games were by no means out of hand leading to Baltimore having to rely on the pass. This could be a repeat performance if the Niners play their typically stout run defense. On the flip side to that the Ravens have the 5th best run defense in football, so the 49ers offense could be in the hands of Alex Smith, who showed those hands are capable of beating a team a week and a half ago against the New York Giants.
The second half of this Niners doubleheader will come Thanksgiving night and be a huge test for them. While a loss is not a disaster by any means, this will be arguably the most difficult game of the year. A short week, flying 3000 miles and a Baltimore squad that is tied for the best record in the AFC await them. The first test came against the Giants and the Niners passed with (mostly) flying colors. This is a much more stern challenge. It will be very interesting to see how this team plays on the big stage against this outstanding opponent. Again, a loss is not the end of the world, however a victory would cement the Niners growing reputation across the NFL. Either way this Thursday night battle should be very telling. Get your turkey ready.