By Sam McPherson
It’s been more than two and a half years since the Baltimore Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII, and a lot has changed for both teams. Neither team has reached the NFL title game since, of course, and now both teams are struggling in 2015 with identical 1-4 records. The Ravens trail the Cincinnati Bengals by four games already in the AFC North, while the 49ers are behind the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC West by three games. If either team wants a shot at Super Bowl 50, it starts now in Week 6.
Somewhat ironic then that the game between the two teams will be played at Levi’s Stadium this Sunday, as that is the site for the NFL’s championship game on Feb. 7, 2016. It’s an early elimination game, perhaps for these two teams. Win, and there is still a chance to recover. Lose, and the season may be lost before Halloween. Needless to say, neither team is used to being in this kind of position, and that will bring a crazy sort of desperation to the game on Sunday afternoon.
As noted, the Ravens are 1-4, with their only win coming in overtime over the Pittsburgh Steelers, 23-20, on the road in Week 4. The other four Baltimore losses have come by a total of 17 points to the Denver Broncos, the Oakland Raiders, the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns (OT loss). For the record, the Ravens did beat the Steelers in the first game Pittsburgh played without Ben Roethlisberger, and they’re very close to being a lot better than 1-4 this season. However, losses are losses in the short NFL season, and Baltimore is buried in its division and conference now.
Ravens on Offense
Quarterback Joe Flacco is currently 30th in the NFL QB rating rankings (80.7). That’s not the performance expected from a guy with Flacco’s contract. He’s thrown six touchdowns and five interceptions this year so far. However, we always have to remember what he is capable of, as Flacco was the MVP of the playoffs in 2012 when the Ravens beat the 49ers in the Super Bowl. He can get hot, and he has help. Running back Justin Forsett is fifth in rushing this season with 395 yards. Veteran wide receiver Steve Smith leads Baltimore with 29 catches, 373 yards and two TDs, while WR Kamar Aiken is averaging 16.2 yards per reception.
The Ravens are averaging 24.6 points per game, and they’ve reached 30-plus points twice this season already. While Baltimore’s offense is not on the level that the last four opponents have been, Flacco is still a veteran QB with a Super Bowl ring on his finger. He is very capable of picking apart the 49ers defense with this supporting cast.
Ravens on Defense
When we think of a Baltimore defense, we don’t see one that is giving up over 27 points per game. Yet that’s what the Ravens have going this season. They’ve lost two starters to season-ending injuries already, and Baltimore is giving up 378.6 yards a game. That happens when the defense is on the field for almost 34 minutes a game as the Ravens have been so far in 2015.
Linebacker C.J. Mosely and safety Will Hill represent the next generation of Baltimore defensive studs, but they can’t do it alone. The Ravens still have a nasty pass rush, with 15 sacks already this year from 11 different players, but they’ve only forced four turnovers (3 INTs, one fumble) so far through five games. Baltimore has good corners (Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb) and will be tough to throw on.
Ravens Players to Watch
Forsett is really the key to the Baltimore offense, in the sense that if he gets room to run, Flacco will be that much more effective as a quarterback. Despite winning that Super Bowl with a magical, four-game postseason run in 2012, Flacco still isn’t really seen as an elite QB. He is prone to errors when pressured, and the 49ers pass rush may be able to rattle him—but they will have to stop Forsett first.
Defensively, Mosley is the big man now: He has two sacks, a fumble return for a TD and three passes defensed already this season. Mosley has to be accounted for on every play by the S.F. offense, or he can be a one-man wrecking machine for the opponent.
The 49ers have played much better the last two games overall, even if they don’t have any wins to show for it. Coming off the heartbreaking loss in Week 5 to Eli Manning and the New York Giants, San Francisco should rebound at home and have enough to beat the Ravens. Baltimore looks good on paper, but the team hasn’t shown it can win close games with consistency this year (yet).
It comes down to the 49ers defense. S.F. has given up just 20 points at home in two games at Levi’s Stadium. If they can replicate that kind of effort in Week 6, the 49ers will beat the Ravens by a touchdown or so.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.