When it was all over, after he had received not one but two celebratory Gatorade showers befitting of a 16-6 victory over one of the NFL’s best teams, Ravens coach John Harbaugh jogged across the field and pulled his younger brother in for an embrace, and some kind words.
No matter whose team was better -- whether it was John’s Ravens or Jim’s San Francisco 49ers -- this was always going to be how this night would end, with the two Harbaugh brothers meeting at midfield, telling each other how proud they were, and how much they loved one another.
“There’s a saying that says ‘as iron sharpens iron, so does one man sharpen another.’ And let’s say my brother John is the sharpest iron I’ve ever encountered,” Jim Harbaugh said. “This game is about the players. It was highly competitive and it didn’t go our way. We’re disappointed about it.”
The first matchup of head-coaching brothers in NFL history was a decisive decision for John Harbaugh’s Ravens, who -- as they promised they would -- had their coach’s back, and proved it by playing one of their best all-around games of the season in front of an announced Thanksgiving night crowd of 71,345 at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Ravens (8-3), behind a mistake-free effort by quarterback Joe Flacco, scored the game’s final 10 points, including Dennis Pitta’s 8-yard touchdown catch on the first play of the fourth quarter. With middle linebacker and leading tackler Ray Lewis missing a second consecutive game with a toe injury, the Ravens allowed just 170 yards of total offense, held star running back Frank Gore to 39 yards on the ground and tied a franchise-record with nine sacks of 49ers quarterback Alex Smith.
“That’s always the game plan, to get at the quarterback. But I think the No. 1 game plan was to win the Harbaugh Bowl,” said Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, who had three of the Ravens’ nine sacks. “Coach tried to downplay it, he tried to play like, ‘You know, this is not me versus my brother. This is the Ravens versus the 49ers, and let’s get the win. And it is what it is.’ But you know it was really important that we as a team went out there and we really wanted to win it for him.”
Harbaugh was still dripping wet when he jogged to midfield to meet his brother. The two had said in the days leading up to the game that the focus should not be on them, but two division-leading football teammates.
However, it was clear from the opening kickoff how much he wanted to win this round of the sibling rivalry. John Harbaugh pumped his fist when the Ravens got first downs, he hugged his players on the sidelines after scoring drives and he jumped on several of his defenders after they exited the field following another stop of the shell-shocked 49ers.
“Just running across the field, I felt really humble,” John Harbaugh said. “Really humble, just thankful. It’s Thanksgiving, and we told our guys there is so much to be thankful for. Running across the field to my brother, he’s my best friend, along with Mom and Dad and my wife. You don’t put yourself in many other coaches’ shoes, but you can put yourself in your brother’s shoes. I’m really proud of him ... I just can’t say it enough, the job that he’s done building that football team. That’s a good football team.”
Flanked by their parents -- Jack and Jackie -- the Harbaugh brothers, along with John’s daughter, Alison, posed for a picture near midfield about an hour before kickoff.
The Harbaughs will always have that picture as a keepsake, but John Harbaugh took much more than that away from the game. After beating the 49ers, who had won eight straight games, the Ravens improved to 8-3 for just the second time in team history.
They are 6-0 at home this season and have won nine straight -- and 16 of their last 17 -- at M&T Bank Stadium. They also, at least temporarily, are in first place alone in the AFC North, pending the Pittsburgh Steelers’ game against the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday night.
“Obviously we think we could be a little better, but for how the season’s gone, we feel great about it, and we’ve just got to just continue to do it,” said Flacco, who went 15-of-23 for 161 yards and a touchdown, and was not sacked for the first time all season. “When we come back, we’re playing Cleveland on the road. They’re a good football team.”
It was Flacco who engineered the game’s decisive drive spanning the third and fourth quarters. The 49ers had just put together a 13-play, 7 1/2 minute third-quarter starting drive that ended with David Akers’ 52-yard field goal to tie the game at 6.
To that point, the Ravens had scored settled for just two field goals on their first six possessions, including one late in the second quarter where they couldn’t punch it in from San Francisco’s 1-yard line.
But after getting the ball at their own 24 following Akers’ second field goal, the Ravens drove 76 yards on 16 plays and in 7:34 to get in the end zone. On 3rd-and-goal from the 8, Flacco hit Pitta on a slant pattern in front of Donte Whitner for the touchdown. It was Pitta’s first career touchdown catch.
On the drive, Flacco went 4-for-4 for 34 yards and a touchdown on third downs.
“I had to cut across the safety’s face and leverage him and give Joe a chance to throw me the ball,” Pitta said. “He put it on my chest perfectly. I shielded the safety and made the catch. What a pivotal play for us in that game, and it helped us gain the momentum and start to pull away in the fourth quarter.”
The 49ers’ next drive ended when Smith (15-of-24 for 140 yards and an interception) was sacked by Lardarius Webb and Cory Redding. Their next drive after that was halted when Suggs sacked Smith for the eighth time.
After Billy Cundiff’s 39-yard field goal with 3:14 to go made it a two-possession game, the Ravens then tied their franchise record with nine sacks on San Francisco’s following drive when Suggs brought down Smith again.
“It’s Thanksgiving man, there’s a lot of turkey,” said Redding, who set a career-high with 2 1/2 sacks. “We had to go out there and eat. And that’s the beauty of stopping the run. When you do that, you can pin your ears back and rush the passer.”
The Ravens stopped the 49ers one more time before getting the ball back and getting Flacco into victory formation. That, and the moment that he would soon share with his brother at midfield, was how John Harbaugh envisioned this stressful week ending.
“It’s just a big win for us,” Harbaugh said. “It’s an opportunity going forward. It positions us really well. Now we have to conquer a game in Cleveland, one that’s been plaguing us all year. It’s a big challenge we have, but we have an opportunity now to get healthy, and that’s what we have to take advantage of in the next couple of days.”