Evan Habeeb, USA Today Sports

Evan Habeeb, USA Today Sports

For Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens: 49ers may prove to be a harsh reality check

Don Atkinson
Nov 30, 2019 at 4:54 PM3

In what many are touting as a preview of the upcoming Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers are in Baltimore this weekend facing the 9-2 Ravens. The game certainly maps out to be one of the best of this year, with the 49ers' elite defense and powerful run-based offense going up against the Ravens' Lamar Jackson, his prolific offense and an aggressive Baltimore defense. Both teams are coming off dominating wins – the Ravens a 45-6 Monday night thumping of the Los Angeles Rams, and the 49ers a 37-8 humiliation of the Green Bay Packers last Sunday evening.

Above and beyond the entertainment value of the game, there are some clear playoff implications, with Baltimore chasing the 10-1 New England Patriots in the AFC, and San Francisco trying to stay a step ahead of the 10-2 New Orleans Saints in the pursuit of a #1 playoff seed in the NFC. The Ravens have the surging Buffalo Bills (9-3) at their heels, and the 49ers have their own pursuer in the Seattle Seahawks (9-2).

What happens in this game could have huge implications for one or both teams if things suddenly go awry for either in the weeks ahead. The 49ers still must face difficult games with the Saints and Seahawks, the outcome of the latter possibly determining the NFC West crown in the final scheduled game of the season. The Ravens, though few are talking about it, have a major challenge of their own in taking on those Buffalo Bills right after the 49ers.

If those circumstances aren't ominous enough, NFL pundits have been loading up over the past week about how this game could be a turning point in the future of pro football. How so? Simply put, it's this:

According to football establishment media, Lamar Jackson, the league's most dynamic run and throw quarterback, is single-handedly reshaping how quarterbacking in the NFL will be done from here forward. And the Ravens are now unbeatable because no one else in the NFL can figure out how to defend against them. Maybe that's an accurate conclusion, based on how Jackson and the Ravens have played over recent weeks. But then again, perhaps not.

In the very words of those who have been doubting the abilities of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers for the past twelve weeks, "I'm going to need to see something more."

By every reasonable evaluation, Lamar Jackson is a highly athletic, very talented football player with the ability to ignite his team on the field. He has clearly improved over his rookie season last year and has self-confidence as well as the confidence of his teammates. At this stage, he's more likely than not to both get the Ravens into the playoffs and win the award for league MVP.

As to changing the game of football, the media needs to slow its roll.

Evidenced by their 10-1 record (with their only loss a late overtime, 3-point matter against the Seahawks three weeks ago), the 49ers have dominated their schedule. Yet each win along the way has carried extensive media doubt about the legitimacy of those wins. Garoppolo and his offense have been downgraded and questioned from the first game of the pre-season, and it's not gotten any better along the way, despite repeated, dominating victories.

Why then, no similar examination of Jackson and the Ravens thus far? Let's take a moment and do it right here.

Two of the Raven's nine wins were decisive victories over the Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals. Simply understanding those two teams are a combined 2-20, nothing else needs to be said.

The Ravens picked up four more wins in much narrower victories against the Arizona Cardinals, Pittsburgh Steelers, the Bengals (again) and the Seahawks. And, they had one key win against the Patriots in Week 9, the crown jewel in the Ravens' tiara so far.

The Ravens' final two and most recent wins came by dismantling both the Houston Texans and the now-hapless Los Angeles Rams. And since those are the games the media has built as the cornerstones of the Ravens' nine-win dynasty, those are the contests that deserve the hardest look.

The Texans (at 7-4) have a nifty quarterback of their own in Deshaun Watson, and have other talent as well, but they have dominated no one in 2019, apart from getting up big over the (then) 1-3 Atlanta Falcons in early October. The Texans have been inconsistent throughout the season, but they've won just enough to keep them in first place in the feeble AFC South. In their game against the Ravens, Houston got down multiple scores early, and never recovered.

These are the same Texans who were beaten by the Carolina Panthers, a team the 49ers would destroy just a few weeks later.

Much of what happened in the Ravens' most recent game against Los Angeles (6-5) was the result of the Rams doing a dismal job of both blocking on offense and tackling on defense. After Jackson and the Ravens got ahead by double digits, the Rams had the look of a team that was simply giving up. But that's a stew that had been cooking on the Rams' stove long before crossing Jackson's path. The Rams' 3-5 record since Week 3, following a Super Bowl appearance last season, tells you what you need to know about their level of intensity, and that is certainly not a situation created by Jackson or the Ravens.

Regarding the Ravens' other two games -- both losses – they came at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs, followed by a 15-point spanking courtesy of the Cleveland Browns. For those joining the conversation late, the Browns were the team whose quarterback was, by the second quarter of their game with San Francisco, seeking refuge from 49ers' defensive line somewhere in the outer regions of the Levi's Stadium parking lot.

Despite the "questionable" record of the Ravens, the common theme here from the media is that the 49ers don't have much of a legitimate chance to win. Clearly that's not even remotely close to the truth. The same thing was said of that 49ers-Packers matchup just last week. Yet throughout that contest, Packers' quarterback Aaron Rodgers, a man whose facial expression often speaks volumes, looked the entire game as if he had consumed a plate of bad swordfish. Getting up off the ground play after play can do that to you.

If the 49ers showed nothing else last week against the Packers, they showed that no game, and no quarterback, is too big for them. These 49ers are neither intimidated nor psyched out by any opponent, much less one that is building a highly creative narrative on a foundation of an off-day for Tom Brady, beat downs of the Dolphins and Bengals, and the recent uber-punking of two teams whose combined record is not much above .500.

Make no mistake, the Ravens are a complete team. But they are still very beatable. Like the 49ers, they are carefully crafted around many key players, and have done tremendous things with what they have. They are, at least right now, playing great on both sides of the ball. But there's a strong possibility that they are also playing bigger than they are – a tag that, ironically, has been applied weekly to the 49ers since the season began.

As to Lamar Jackson the quarterback, a few things are clear. He is super talented. But what he's not is Superman. Like all quarterbacks, Jackson can be pushed out of his game plan, forced to change his way of working, rattled, or worse. Granted, Jackson seems to handle pressure well and getting him out of his comfort zone will be a difficult task. But difficult does not equate to impossible.

The 49ers and the rest of the NFL may not reverse-engineer Lamar Jackson this week. But rest assured, it's only a matter of time. And that time may be much shorter than people expect.

Jackson is red hot right now. But by any unemotional analysis, he is not one of the better passers in the league. Many of his best throws have come outside the pocket and on the move, when receivers are improvising, and defenders are in a state of confusion. It's passing into chaos, and that isn't likely to last long.

Jackson's ability to run the ball is epic. It's also exceptionally self-endangering. He is an incredible running threat who is almost certainly going to get hurt badly at some point.

There's a reason why football quarterbacks throw from the pocket, and why they hand the ball off to more-sturdily built running backs. Some of the most exhilarating quarterbacks of the Super Bowl era have been players like Jackson – fast, agile, free-wheeling and ready to flee the pocket to make plays happen. They are thrilling to watch. But most quarterbacks, and Jackson is not special in this regard, are not built to absorb the hits that come with running the ball 12 or 15 times a game. Jackson is a gifted athlete, and at 6'2", 212 lbs. he's by no means frail. But he's also not built like Cam Newton.

Jackson's impala-like qualities are unique, but this is still the NFL, and the larger and meaner players who dwell within inevitably inflict damage on quarterbacks who try to make a habit out of leaving the relative safety of the pocket. It's nearly a cosmic certainty. At some point, Jackson is going to go down at the end of one of those thrilling runs, and the Ravens experiment in fantastical football is going to come to a gut-grinding halt.

Those who believe Jackson is going to be able to run wild for the rest of the season, let alone for the rest of his career, are deluding themselves. Perhaps he will make it through to February (making the huge assumption, of course, that the Ravens can get past the Patriots and perhaps the Chiefs along the way) unscathed. Perhaps not. But if he does, it will be contrary to the laws of nature, and of statistical probability.

None of the above is intended as a denigration of Jackson's value or talent. As already stated, he is a remarkable and highly skilled player. He likely deserves strong MVP consideration this year. But the NFL pundits are in something of a narcotic fog over the young quarterback, and it doesn't seem likely to lift until the Ravens suffer a severe beat down and Jackson's magic, even for one game, runs out.

The 49ers very well may come up with a way to throw some gravel into Baltimore's gears. If not, they might well lose this game. If that happens, though, it's not likely to have a fatal effect on their playoff aspirations. In the longer run, it's more important that the 49ers exit the matchup with the Ravens without any new injuries than it is their hitting the 11-1 mark.

With much larger conference games ahead, most especially the two road games against the Saints and Seahawks, the time to absorb a second loss would be now. That said, it's unlikely the 49ers are expecting anything less than a solid win, even against the red-hot Ravens.

On the opposite sideline, the Ravens and their fans are counting on Lamar Jackson to carry them into the Super Bowl in February. And they've gone all in, joined by the media, on crowning Jackson as the man who alone has changed how football is to be played for years to come. Time will tell if that's a real prophecy or a massive and inglorious misjudgment.

In the interim, there are some guys in gold helmets, quietly preparing, readying themselves for Sunday, who may have something to say about all of that.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Steve Pape
    How about them apples.
    Dec 2, 2019 at 6:59 AM
  • Paul
    Speak softly and carry a big stick-Teddy Roosevelt. The 49ers haven't trash-talked all year, and neither have the Patriots. The Ravens and the Seahawks have; we will see how things turn out. I remember a decimated, with Grbac starting for Young, 6-4 49ers going into heavily favored Dallas at 8-2 and totally dominating them and Sanders. A 10-1 team should have a legitimate shot one would think.
    Nov 30, 2019 at 6:32 PM
  • Jon hurley
    Excellent read. Couldn't agree more. Lamar has not been invincible all season. He's been mediocre to bad as a passer for the majority of the season. The more hype he gets the more defenses will target him. Every running back sustains an injury if they have enough carries. Most that carry the ball as much as Lamar every game don't make it but 3 or 4 seasons.
    Nov 30, 2019 at 6:26 PM

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