Harbaugh brothers are far from only compelling storyline in Ravens-49ers game

November 22, 2011|Peter Schmuck

Obviously, there will be some history made when John and Jim Harbaugh take the field on Thursday night, so you can't blame the NFL and the network types from trying to exploit their "sibling rivalry" for all it's worth.

The first-ever showdown between two head coaches who happen to be brothers is certainly an interesting twist on the league's Thanksgiving tradition and it's a wonderful tribute to the Harbaugh family — particularly mom and dad — but it's important for everyone to keep this family affair in its proper perspective.

It is just one subplot in a game that is full of them. The Ravens are entering their second week of wondering just how long they are going to have to play without injured superstar Ray Lewis. Both teams are working on a heavily condensed practice and preparation schedule. The 49ers have the added disadvantage of having to fly coast-to-coast for the second time in barely three weeks.

Trust me on this, those are the kinds of things that are at the very top of the priority list for both coaches, even as they play along with what is — admittedly — a pretty cool human interest story.

John Harbaugh may look like a touchy-feely guy when he flashes that 100-watt smile, but if you've been paying attention the last 3 ½ years, you've probably figured out that he was dead serious when he laid out his top three priorities at his introductory media conference.

"The team, the team and the team."

Jim Harbaugh can't even fake it. He's wound so tight that he almost shook Jim Schwartz's hand off after an exciting victory over the Detroit Lions a few weeks ago.

Don't get me wrong. They've got to be happy to be in this situation, because they have both reached the top of the football coaching pyramid and their success really is a terrific testament to their great parents. The two teams and the league love it because it adds a human touch to the final game of the Thanksgiving tripleheader. What's not to like?

Still, it's also important to keep in mind how critical this game is to the Ravens, regardless of the interpersonal implications.

It's not just a high-profile non-conference game, though it's certainly an attractive matchup that should provide some insight into the relative strength of the AFC and the NFC. The Ravens are tied for the best record in the AFC and the surprising 49ers are second only to the undefeated Packers with a 9-1 record on the NFC, so it could even be a Super Bowl preview.

That's enough in itself to make it one of the most compelling nationally televised games of the season, but there's a more immediate importance for the Ravens, who once again are locked in a tight battle with the Steelers for control of the AFC North.

For all the talk about the importance of divisional and conference games, the case can be made that this common-opponent matchup could decide whether the Steelers or Ravens play at home during the postseason.

The Ravens already own the playoff tiebreakers with the Steelers, Jets and Texans. They also are the only team in the AFC North with a winning record (3-0) in divisional play. But that won't mean much if they don't have at least the same record as the Steelers at the end of the regular season.

The 49ers present a crucial matchup because they appear to be the toughest remaining opponent for both the Ravens and Steelers. There are other big challenges ahead for the Ravens — including road trips to San Diego and Cincinnati — but a victory on Thursday night would greatly improve their chances of holding off the Steelers, who have to travel across the country to play the 49ers in Week 15.

Jim Harbaugh voiced a legitimate gripe in Monday's conference call about having to play such a big game on a short week on the opposite coast. He — and the Ravens — can't be thrilled that the Steelers will get 10 days to prepare for their West Coast trip in December. The rest of the Steelers' schedule looks pretty soft, so the Ravens don't have any more games to give after those three wasted opportunities against the Titans, Jaguars and Seahawks.

Both coaches know there is a lot at stake for their teams, but there definitely is more at stake for the Ravens at the moment. They badly need this game and the 10 days after to get healthy for the stretch run.

They really don't have time for a lot of brotherly love.

Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.

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