Four times the 49ers have traveled east this season, and four times they’ve come back with victories.
Road wins at Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Detroit and Washington have been part of San Francisco’s eight-game winning streak as Jim Harbaugh’s team has built an NFC West-leading 9-1 record.
But as the Niners prepare for Thursday night’s nationally televised “Harbowl” game vs. coach John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco’s road warrior streak faces its most severe test of the season.
Like the 49ers, the Ravens are built around a rugged defense and a pounding ground game. Though Baltimore may be without star linebacker Ray Lewis (injured foot), the Ravens’ defense ranks fourth overall in the NFL and No. 5 against the run, allowing just 93.2 yards per game.
Plus, the 49ers’ streak of 32 consecutive games without allowing an opposing back to rush for 100 yards or more will be tested by Ray Rice, the Ravens’ 5-foot-8, 212-pound bowling ball of a back who rushed for 104 yards against the Bengals last week and who has 663 yards rushing (No. 12 in the league) this season. Rice is also a fine receiver.
“To me, Ray Rice is one of the better backs in the league,” 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Ron Kroichick. “He runs really well, he’s very shifty and he has speed. … He can do it all. He poses a big threat.”
The past two seasons Rice has rushed for more than 1,200 yards.
San Francisco linebacker Ahmad Brooks told Kroichick that he and his teammates watch the Ravens and Rice on film and see a big challenge. Yet, if they play as they have, Brooks says they can meet that challenge.
“As long as we keep doing what we’re doing, I don’t think we’ll have a 100-yard rusher against us all year,” Brooks told Kroichick.
There’s more to the Baltimore offense than just Rice, however, Quarterback Joe Flacco has a strong arm and is a deep threat with receivers such as rookie Torrey Smith and Lee Evans. Smith leads all NFL rookie receivers with an 18.5-yard average per catch and has caught passes of 74, 51, 49 and 36 yards this season, reports Matthew Barrows of the Sacramento Bee.
So the 49ers – who rank No. 1 in the NFL against the run but only 23rd against the pass – will need to pay just as much attention to containing Flacco and Co., says Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
“We just saw a play in the meeting I was just in where Flacco threw it 70 yards in the air to (Smith),” Fangio told Barrows. “The ball traveled 70 yards in the air. So Flacco’s always been a great deep-ball player, and they finally got some (receivers) he can do it with.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh looks at the matchup of his team against his brother’s and sees two teams built almost in the same mold. He says it won’t be a “trick ’em game,” but a straightforward confrontation of teams built on defense, field position, takeaways and efficiency.
“It’s two physical teams, two teams with quite a lot at stake,” Harbaugh told the Associated Press. “It’s two teams that play a very similar style of football. … If you’re a football fan I wouldn’t think you’d want to miss this game.”
With a victory over the Ravens Thursday and a loss by the Seahawks Sunday, the 49ers would clinch the NFC West championship.
Oddsmakers have made the Ravens 3½-point favorites.