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When the Ravens' Harbaugh stares across the sideline Thursday night and sees his brother, Jim, the head coach of the 49ers, it will mark the first time in NFL history that two brothers will match up against each other as the respective head coaches.
"I've never rooted against him, really ever," said John Harbaugh, who is 15 months older than Jim. "We played against each other one time in baseball in high school, an American Legion team. My Dad was actually coaching Jim's team, and we won, 1-0. That's the last time I remember our teams going [against the other's]. We're always on the same team all the time. It's going to be a little different that way, but really, it's not about that. We're not going to be playing. It's going to be the players playing in the game."
An at-times playful and sarcastic John Harbaugh answered questions about his relationship with his brother for more than 20 minutes on a conference call with the national media Monday. He certainly hasn't heard the last of such questions in advance of Thursday's nationally-televised game, no matter how much the focus is steered off family and onto football.
However, the reality is that as much attention as the story line will generate, Harbaugh has far bigger worries. Coming off a tight and grueling game, the Ravens have to bounce back physically and emotionally in such a short period of time against San Francisco, a team that has been labeled one of the most physical in the league.
The 49ers' defense is ranked eighth overall in the NFL, and they are first overall in defending the run, and sixth overall in running the football.
"The challenge is going to be being healthy," said Ravens safety Ed Reed, who has been dealing with a neck issue the past couple of weeks. "Short week, guys got banged up. I got banged up. We've got to make sure we're taking the time and being smart with it. We'll be ready. This game was on the schedule a long time ago and guys will be ready."
John Harbaugh said that the Ravens will have more "mental" practices this week than physical ones, allowing his players the necessary time to recuperate and game plan for a team that they haven't played since 2007. The Ravens had a walk-through practice today and Harbaugh said pretty much everybody took part and he praised the players for their attention to detail and enthusiasm.
The big health question, of course, will be about the availability of middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who missed the Bengals' game with a toe injury, breaking his streak of 57 consecutive regular-season games started. Lewis, who could be a game-time decision again Thursday, was not walking with an obvious limp as he left the Ravens' practice bubble with the rest of his teammates. He declined to be interviewed later, and Harbaugh also provided no update on Lewis' condition.
With Lewis on the sidelines Sunday, the Ravens' defense played pretty well for three quarters before nearly allowing the Bengals to erase a 17-point deficit in the final 14 minutes. Trailing by a touchdown, Cincinnati rookie quarterback Andy Dalton led his team down to the Ravens' 7-yard line before the Bengals were stopped on four consecutive plays.
Several players said later that there were a couple of communication issues, but it was mostly business as usual without Lewis and with inside linebacker Jameel McClain relaying defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano's calls to his teammates.
"Ray Lewis is a dominant force in football. Everybody knows that, so not having him makes the game different, but at the end of the day, we've got 11 guys out there that are prepared to play and go out there and do what they [have] to do," McClain said.
The Ravens will only have three days to get those issues ironed out. The team's coaching and support staff had been watching some film on San Francisco earlier this season, but that process didn't start in earnest until Sunday night. By the time Ravens players arrived at the team complex today, the iPads that contain the game plan for facing the 49ers had already been loaded with the relevant information.
"The physical side is very tough. That's why you have to elevate [the mental side]," said Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson when asked about the quick turnaround between games. "You can use it as an excuse or you can play hard and take advantage of it."
The 49ers' Harbaugh was quick to point out that his team is at a disadvantage because they have to spend Wednesday traveling to the East Coast.
"As far as nostalgia, I think it's very considerate of the NFL to fly us out there and I get to see my brother on Thanksgiving. I haven't seen him on Thanksgiving in I don't know how many years," Harbaugh joked. "There's no doubt that we got the short end of the straw on this one but we'll see if we can make history. This is the first time that two brothers have coached against each other. It's the first time an NFL team has traveled three time zones to play a Thursday night after a Sunday night game since the league went to a 16-game schedule. There's a couple of firsts and we'll do everything we can to be successful."
Harbaugh called the Ravens the best team that San Francisco has played this season, opting instead to focus on that rather than matching wits with his brother, who he said is as "knowledgeable in the game of football [as any coach] that is coaching today."
Such compliments between the brothers will undoubtedly flow freely in the days ahead in the buildup to the "Harbaugh Bowl."
"I think all the Harbaughs, the extended Harbaughs, they'll all have a great time one way or the other. I think there will be one Harbaugh side that will be really happy and there will be another Harbaugh side that will be really disappointed. Then, Mom and Dad will be torn. That's how I think it will go," John Harbaugh said. "It's going to be a hard-fought game. It's a short week, it's two physical football teams. It's two teams with quite a lot at stake and it's two teams that play very similar style football. It's going to be a great night. It's going to be a great night for football. If you're a football fan, I wouldn't think you'd want to miss this game."
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