Ravens 16, 49ers 6

1. A team that's been plagued all year by inconsistency may, after Thursday night, have finally sharpened its focus for good. If we've learned anything about the Ravens this year, it's that it's dangerous to make any kind of definitive statements about them after wins or losses. Just when you're ready celebrate their dominance, they regress. And just when you're ready to write them off as serious contenders, they shine. So I'm fully aware that what I'm about to say has a very real chance of looking ridiculous if they saunter into Cleveland 10 days from now and stumble against one of the NFL's worst teams. But I'm going to roll the dice and say it anyway, because I feel like in my gut it really might be true. This team is finally ready to play good football every time they step on the field. That doesn't mean they won't lose again. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me at all if they lost to San Diego in three weeks, because as bad as Philip Rivers has looked this year, he's exactly the kind of quarterback who can give them fits if he has a good day. But I'm going to take a leap of faith with John Harbaugh & Co. and guess that there won't be anymore listless performances where they sleepwalk through the first half on offense and go through the motions on defense in the fourth quarter. Or ones where they abandon their game plan after one quarter. This team has flaws, and they may still be their undoing, but the Ravens also have too much talent to drop games the way they've lost them this year. If nothing else, it would be satisfying if their effort was as relentless as it was against the San Francisco 49ers, and they were mentally sharp the rest of the way. In politics, there is a phrase people use when a candidate finally connects with an audience on the campaign trail. It represents the moment when everything starts to come together, the hard work begins to pay off, and people take you seriously. It's when a candidate finally figures out exactly what his strengths are, and he plays to them. It's called finding your voice. I think over the last 10 days, the Ravens have finally found their voice. I think playing two games in 10 days, and playing without their emotional leader and defensive patriarch in Ray Lewis actually helped them get here in some respects. It forced everyone, including the coaching staff, to focus on the basics. This team is built to play violent, fast, disciplined football, and they certainly have played that way for the most part. But when they've struggled, it's because they let other teams dictate the action. Jacksonville and Seattle decided to focus on taking away the run, and the Ravens responded by ... throwing the ball. Intellectually, that seems like the right strategy, because you should have a match-up advantage if teams are going to take away Ray Rice. But against Cincinnati and San Francisco, the Ravens put the onus on their opponents. It wasn't perfect, especially in the red zone, but if I had to sum up Baltimore's strategy in the last two games, it would be something like this: The hell with what you want to do, we're going to focus on us, and it's up to you to stop it. On Thursday, that meant slamming Ray Rice into the line repeatedly, even when San Francisco walked the safety up to the line of scrimmage. That meant forcing Alex Smith to run for his life, even though he occasionally slipped free and make a few plays. Because if you impose your will long enough, it doesn't matter if you take a few punches. Eventually the stronger, more aggressive team is going to win. The 49ers are a good team. It was impressive the way they traveled all the way across the country on short rest and butted heads with the Ravens in front of a raucous home crowd. They are physical and strong at the point of attack, and they're disciplined in gap responsibility. Jim Harbaugh is a great coach. But the Ravens were the more talented team, and when you have more talent, you win games by wearing the other guy down. So even though he may drive you nuts, espcially near the goal line, give the offensive coordinator some credit for once. "I thought Cam Cameron called a winning game plan," John Harbaugh said. "You talk about discipline and sticking to the plan and staying patient when he had to against this team. I think Cam deserves a lot of credit. And Chuck Pagano deserves a lot of credit for doing the same. He stayed patient. He called pressure when he needed to call pressure. He called coverage at the right time to not give them the opportunity for a big play." They way the Ravens are going to take a real run at the Lombardi Trophy is by imposing their will. It's a little cliche, a little bit macho, but when you have a great player like Ray Rice, and you have as much depth on defense as they do, it's the truth. They need to say to other teams, if you're going to take away what we do best, then you're going to have to earn it. Every inch of it. You're not going to scare us or trick us out of moving forward, moving forward and furiously throwing jabs. "We've always had focus," said Terrell Suggs after a three sack performance. "Sometimes our game plan gets away from us and we've given away a few games. So, as long as we always keep the game plan in our grasp and do what we do best, play Ravens football, feed every defense a lot of Rice, I think we've got a good chance of making a good run at this thing."
Larry French, Getty Images
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