We must’ve all been especially good this year to receive such a present on Christmas Day.
Though, we also must exercise a bit more patience because we won’t be able to unwrap this gift from under the tree first thing Christmas morning.
Santa and the NFL schedule makers will allow us to enjoy some (quality) family time before we hunker down for the Christmas clash on Monday Night Football at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara between the league’s two best teams – the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers (on ABC/ESPN).
It’s a potential Super Bowl preview with the team with the best record from the AFC pitted against the team with the best record from the NFC.
This marks just the sixth time since the 1970 merger that the conference’s two best teams square off in December or later. And in two of those previous five matchups, these teams ended up meeting again in the Super Bowl – though that hasn’t happened in more than four decades.
In each of those previous meetings, the NFC team came out on top. Sportsbooks have made the 49ers 5.5-point favorites and our supercomputer agrees they’re the best bets with a 67.7% win probability.
It also gives both of these teams the highest odds to reach the Super Bowl, with San Francisco having a 37.6% chance and Baltimore at 25.0%. To further the point, the 49ers easily lead the NFL in overall EVE (efficiency vs. expected), while the underdog Ravens are third (just behind the Dolphins).
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves and take a look at Monday’s game, which our supercomputer has cranked out a SmartRatings score of 76 – tied for the highest rating of NFL Week 16, along with the Cowboys-Dolphins Christmas Eve showdown.
The Ravens clinched a playoff berth last Sunday night with a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars to improve to 11-3 and stay a game clear of the 10-4 Dolphins atop the AFC. It marked Baltimore’s fourth straight win and eighth in nine games.
Lamar Jackson passed for 171 yards and a touchdown and ran for 97 yards for his 11th career NFL game with 170 or more passing yards and 90+ rushing yards to tie Mike Vick for the most such games in NFL history. With 3,105 passing yards, Jackson is now just 22 yards shy of his career high, set during his 2019 MVP season.
Adept at making highlight reel plays with either his arm or legs, Jackson is near the top of the short list of MVP candidates for the 2023 NFL season.
His counterpart on Monday night is currently atop that list.
Brock Purdy threw for 242 yards and four touchdowns in last Sunday’s 45-29 win at Arizona to compile a 135.3 passer rating. It marked his sixth game of the season with a QB rating of 130 or higher, which is tied for the most in a single season in NFL history.
His league-leading 119.0 QB rating is 13.0 higher than the next-highest passer, the Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa. Since 2000, only one NFL leader has finished a season with a larger gap over the second-place finisher in passer rating and that came in 2007 when Tom Brady’s 117.2 QB rating was 13.1 points better than Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers.
Purdy, however, isn’t the only 49er in the MVP conversation.
Christian McCaffrey scored three touchdowns last week to give him an NFL high-tying 20 on the season. With 115 yards on the ground on 18 carries and another 72 yards through the air via five receptions, the two-time Pro Bowler totaled a season-high 187 scrimmage yards for his seventh straight game with 100+ yards, tying Roger Craig from 1988 for the longest in a season in franchise history.
Behind Purdy and McCaffrey, the 11-3 49ers come in riding a six-game winning streak, averaging 34.5 points in those contests while winning each by at least 12 points. In Arizona last week, San Francisco scored touchdowns on five of its first eight possessions en route to its highest-scoring game since 2019.
The 49ers offense has been humming along all season, ranking first in percentage of successful plays (46.9), first in yards per play (6.79) and first in offensive plays of 20+ yards (75).
The same has mostly been true of San Francisco’s defense, as its average of 16.7 points allowed trails only the Ravens’ average of 16.1 for the best in the NFL.
One aspect of the defense that has suddenly become a little concerning is its play against the run. And that doesn’t bode particularly well for facing an offense that runs more than any other team.
BAL Key: Run the Ball
Something that will make this matchup unique is that while most other modern-day offenses employ a vertical passing game, the Ravens and 49ers are committed to running the ball.
And why shouldn’t they? The opposition hasn’t had much success at stopping it.
The Ravens rank second in average yards per rush (5.01), first in runs of 10+ yards (62) and sixth in percentage of successful running plays (39.6).
The 49ers, meanwhile, rank fifth in average yards per rush (4.74), second in runs of 10+ yards (61) and first in percentage of successful running plays (43.7).
The Ravens run the ball on an NFL-high 50.8% of offensive plays and have the second-fewest pass attempts (409), while the 49ers run the ball at the league’s second-highest rate (49.8) and have attempted the fewest passes (391).
Yep, it’s shaping up to be a good ol’ fashion backyard brawl. But instead of 3 yards and a cloud of dust, it’s more like 5 yards and an explosive burst.
Especially if Baltimore’s offense balls out again and San Francisco’s defense stammers like it did last week.
The 49ers were gashed for 235 yards on the ground – the most they’ve permitted in a game since the Cowboys ran for 265 against them in Week 7 of 2017. The Cardinals ran 30 times, and their 7.80 yards per carry were the highest allowed by San Francisco since 2006 when the Philadelphia Eagles averaged 8.33 yards per attempt.
Hours after the 49ers were run over by the Cardinals, the Ravens put on their own running clinic, rushing for 251 yards in their win over the Jags. Baltimore had a season high-tying nine runs go for 10+ yards en route to recording its 30th consecutive game with 100+ rushing yards. In the Super Bowl era, only four other teams have logged 100+ rushing yards in at least 30 straight games, and the next-longest active streak of 100-yard rushing games is seven by the Lions and 49ers.
The Niners were without both of their starting defensive tackles with Arik Armstead sidelined for a second straight game with injuries to his leg and Javon Hargrave out with a hamstring injury. Their status for this game is uncertain.
The Ravens run game suffered a significant blow last weekend with Keaton Mitchell sustaining a season-ending knee injury. Since moving into the rotation in Week 9, the speedy rookie’s average of 6.53 yards before contact led the NFL by a wide margin – 2.39 better than Detroit’s Jahmyr Gibbs.
Mitchell’s emergence helped him supplant Justice Hill on the depth chart, but Hill has proven he can pick up the yards. Through Week 9, Hill’s average of 2.97 yards before contact ranked fifth among the 45 running backs with at least 50 carries.
Gus Edwards, meanwhile, leads all Baltimore running backs in rushing yards with 663 and is more of a bruiser running the ball. He’s also the team’s primary ball carrier near the goal line, as only five players have more rush attempts from inside the opponents’ 10-yard line than Edwards’ 23.
Baltimore’s rushing attack, however, starts with Jackson. He leads all QBs with 741 rushing yards and the 49ers must be disciplined when he begins to scramble, as he’s a constant threat to pick up a big chunk of yards.
Although his longest run of the year is only 26 yards, he also has 26 runs of 10+ yards. He gains 10+ yards on 19.3% of his runs, the fourth-highest rate among the 59 players with a minimum of 70 carries. He’s also one of the most dangerous players in the NFL at identifying the open field and picking up yards before the defense closes in.
Highest Average Yards Before Contact (Min. 70 Carries)
- De’Von Achane, Miami Dolphins (6.86)
- Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens (4.52)
- Jahmyr Gibbs, Detroit Lions (3.49)
- Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles (3.16)
- James Conner, Arizona Cardinals (3.14)
San Francisco struggled in slowing down a QB who’s a threat to run last week, as the Cardinals’ Kyler Murray ran for 49 yards on just six attempts, while the player who rounds out the top five on the above list, James Conner, averaged 6.1 yards per carry – with 4.2 coming before contact.
There is some reason for optimism for the Niners, however, as they recently neutralized one of the league’s top running quarterbacks. In their 42-13 beatdown of the Eagles in Week 13, they swarmed Jalen Hurts immediately, limiting him to just 20 yards on seven carries.
SF Key: Run the Ball
As mentioned earlier, the 49ers like to run – and that’s been a winning formula for them.
Running the ball has been their bread and butter all season, and there’s no point for them to reinvent the wheel – especially when you have McCaffrey in your backfield.
No player has more rushes this season than McCaffrey’s 244 and his NFL-best 1,292 rushing yards are 324 more than the next-closest player – the Bills’ James Cook. He is also just 96 yards away from matching his career high from 2019.
And all this time defenses know CMC is going to get the ball, and they can’t stop him.
In the last four games, he’s rushed for 467 yards with an average of 6.7 yards per carry. This is McCaffrey’s highest rushing average over a four-game span in his career (minimum 70 attempts) and the highest by any San Francisco running back since 2006 when Frank Gore averaged 6.8 yards over a four-game span.
The success of San Francisco’s rushing attack has set up the play-action pass, which Purdy is running to perfection to to weapons like Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle.
Defending the play-action pass while trying to corral McCaffrey will be quite the challenge for a Baltimore defense that has had some trouble against the run lately.
Since Week 10, the Ravens are 28th in rush defense, allowing 4.82 yards per carry while opposing teams are achieving successful running plays 40.8% of the time – the seventh-worst rate in the NFL. Through the season’s first nine weeks, opposing teams were achieving successful running plays at a 30.6% clip – the league’s fifth-best rate.
McCaffrey notched his NFL-leading sixth 100-yard rushing game of the season last week and the Niners improved to 10-0 this season when he rushes for at least 75 yards.
The Ravens have lost two of the three games they’ve had this season while allowing a 100-yard rusher.