BALTIMORE — John Harbaugh aggressively pumped his fist when Joe Flacco converted a big third-down throw. He jumped on the back of linebacker Jameel McClain as he ran off the field after a key sack in the fourth quarter, and he gave several of his players hugs after receiving the first of two celebratory Gatorade baths.
And when it was all over, when his Ravens had turned a superb all-around effort into a 16-6 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in front of an announced Thanksgiving night crowd of 71,435 at M&T Bank Stadium, Harbaugh jogged across the field and pulled his younger brother by 15 months in for an embrace,and some kind words.
The first matchup of head-coaching brothers in NFL history went the way of John Harbaugh’s Ravens as they scored the game’s final 10 points to deliver Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers just their second loss all season and their first since Week Two.
Flacco’s eight-yard touchdown strike to second-year tight end Dennis Pitta on the first play of the fourth quarter broke a 6-6 deadlock, and was all an inspired Ravens’ defense would need. Playing a second straight game without middle linebacker and emotional leader Ray Lewis, the Ravens tied a franchise record with nine sacks of 49ers’ quarterback Alex Smith, and held standout running back Frank Gore to 39 yards rushing.
Linebacker Terrell Suggs, who spoke during the week about how badly the players wanted to get the head coach the victory over his younger brother, had three sacks all in the second half, and defensive end Cory Redding had a career-high 2½ sacks.
The Ravens improved to 8-3 on the season and now have sole possession of first place in the AFC North pending the Pittsburgh Steelers’ game against the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday night. They are now 6-0 at home and have won 16 of their last 17 at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Ravens’ lone touchdown drive was one of their finest all season as it covered 76 yards in 16 plays, and took up 7:34 spanning the third and fourth quarters. Flacco (15-of-23 for 161 yards and a touchdown) was 4-for-4 for 34 yards and a touchdown on third down during the drive.
He hit Anquan Boldin for seven on 3rd-and-6, Lee Evans for eight on 3rd-and-7, and Pitta for 11 on 3rd-and-6 before hitting Pitta again on 3rd-and-goal from the eight for a touchdown, It was the first of Pitta’s career.
The Ravens had a 6-3 lead heading into halftime, but that was erased when the 49ers opened the second half with a 13-play drive that lasted 7:36. A Terrell Suggs’ 10-yard sack the Ravens’ season-high tying sixth of the night — forced San Francisco into a long field goal but David Akers drilled it from 52 yards to tie the game, and improve to 6-for-6 from 50 yards or beyond this season.
Both Harbaughs spent the week trying to divert attention off of themselves and onto a matchup between two first-place teams. They weren’t very successful.
The storyline dominated the couple of days leading into the game, and the pregame activity tonight. When the two brothers met and embraced at midfield about an hour and a half before the game, they were swarmed by photographers, and microphones. Perhaps uncomfortable by the scene, their chat lasted only a couple of minutes before both Harbaughs headed upfield to be closer to their respective teams.
But they got together again about a half hour later, and this time they were joined at midfield by their parents, Jack and Jackie Harbaugh. As about 25 photographers stood in front of them, the proud parents, wearing neutral colors, flanked their two sons and John’s daughter, Alison, and together they posed for a picture.
That was Jack and Jackie’s one wish before they retreated to an office at M&T Bank Stadium and watched the game on television away from the constantly glare of the cameras.
They watched Jim’s Ravens take the opening kickoff and then drive 55 yards on 10 plays, resulting in a 39-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff. On the drive, Flacco hit Boldin for 22 yards on 3rd-and-4, and then on the next play, the two connected for 16 yards. A 10-yard run by Rice gave the home team the ball at the San Francisco 20, but the Ravens got no further before settling for the Cundiff field goal.
The stiffening of the 49ers’ defense set the tone for what quickly morphed into a defensive struggle. The 49ers tied the game late in the first quarter on a David Akers’ 45-yard field goal. It was set up by Smith’s 20-yard completion to former University of Maryland standout Vernon Davis on 3rd-and-2.
After forcing the Ravens to punt, the 49ers thought that they had taken the lead when Ted Ginn Jr. out-jumped cornerback Cary Williams for a Smith pass and then sprinted into the end zone for what would have been a 75-yard touchdown pass. However, running back Frank Gore was called for a chop block on a blitzing Bernard Pollard on the play, negating the touchdown.
That drive ended with Ravens defensive end Redding sacking Smith on third down. It was one of Redding’s two sacks and the Ravens’ four in the first half. The four sacks matched the total the Ravens had in their previous three games.
With the score still tied at three, the Ravens moved deep into 49ers’ territory, thanks to a 50-yard pass interference penalty on Tarell Brown. The San Francisco cornerback actually intercepted Flacco’s pass, but that was nullified on the penalty.
The Ravens appeared poised to score the first rushing touchdown on the 49ers all year when Rice rushed nine yards, and then three yards to get down to the San Francisco one. However, he lost four yards on his next rush and then Flacco was stopped for no gain on third down. That forced the Ravens to settle for Cundiff’s 23-yard field goal with 2:51 left in the half.
Looking to tie the game heading into halftime, the 49ers got down to the Ravens’ 35, which is within Akers’ field goal range. But Smith wanted more and his deep attempt to Braylon Edwards in the end zone was intercepted by Lardarius Webb.