BALTIMORE – Surrounded by a phalanx of cameras capturing a historic moment, the Harbaugh family huddled at midfield.
It was all handshakes, hugs and smiles before kickoff as John Harbaugh and Jim Harbaugh visited with their parents. However the Baltimore Ravens’ intimidating defense hardly delivered a friendly tone as soon as the Harbaugh Bowl was launched marking the first time in NFL history that two brothers coached against each other.
It was akin to one of the ultra-competitive brothers’ legendary scraps growing up.
The Ravens manufactured an impressive 16-6 victory Thursday night before 71,345 at M&T Bank Stadium through some violent hitting punctuated by the defense repeatedly bashing into San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, tying a franchise record by sacking him nine times.
Drenched in Gatorade after a pair of celebratory sideline baths, John Harbaugh hugged his younger brother tightly afterward. And he saluted Jim Harbaugh after vanquishing his 49ers team that had only lost one game previously this season.
"Just running across the field, I felt really humble," John Harbaugh said. "Really humble, just thankful. 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.
"The job that he’s done building that football team, that’s a good football team. When you try to figure out a way to play those guys and beat those guys the way they’re built is pretty hard. To be able to beat a team like that in a situation like this, it says a lot about our guys."
Relentlessly attacking on defense despite All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis being sidelined for the second consecutive game with a toe injury, the Ravens (8-3) stonewalled 49ers star running back Frank Gore as they limited him to a season-low 39 rushing yards on 14 carries.
A repeated shout from the Ravens’ locker room could be overheard across the hall in the press conference area: "That’s how you play defense!"
With the threat of Gore rendered essentially harmless, the Ravens turned their attention toward punishing Smith.
Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs tied a career-high by sacking Smith three times, and defensive end Cory Redding chased Smith down for 2 ½ sacks with All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata decking him twice more.
They embarrassed the 49ers’ offensive line, especially right tackle Anthony Davis and rotating guards Adam Snyder and Chilo Rachal.
"We had to dominate their line in order for us to win this game, and that’s what we did," Redding said after the defense limited the 49ers to 170 yards of total offense. "We made a statement. It’s Thanksgiving man, there’s a lot of turkey. We had to go out there and eat. That’s the beauty of stopping the run. When you do that, you can pin your ears back and rush the passer."
Although Harbaugh emphasized all week that the game was about his mantra of the team, the team and the team, his players wanted to win a game for him against his brother, a former NFL quarterback and the leading candidate for NFL Coach of the Year honors.
"I think the No. 1 game plan was to win the Harbaugh bowl," Suggs said. "Coach tried to downplay it, he tried to play like you know this is not me versus my brother. It was really important, and we really wanted to win it for him. We were going to win the game for him and then we were going to drown him."
The 49ers’ eight-game winning streak was broken.
After his 49ers (9-2) lost for the first time this season in five trips to the Eastern time zone, Jim Harbaugh acknowledged how difficult it is to beat his brother.
"There’s a saying that, as iron sharpens iron, so does one man sharpen another," Jim Harbaugh said. "Let’s say my brother, John, is the sharpest iron I’ve ever encountered. It was highly competitive, and it didn’t go our way. We’re disappointed about it."
Offensively, the Ravens played a smart, efficient game and scored the last 10 points of the game to put the 49ers away.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was masterful on the Ravens’ lone touchdown drive, engineering a 16-play, 76-yard drive that lasted 7 minutes and 34 seconds.
Flacco completed 7 of 11 passes on the drive, capping it with an eight-yard touchdown pass fired into the hands of tight end Dennis Pitta on a short inside pattern.
"Dennis did a great job of really taking a great angle when he came across," Flacco said.
Flacco completed all four of his throws on third down during the decisive drive, generating 34 yards and a touchdown.
It was the first NFL touchdown for Pitta.
"It was an inside post and I was trying 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."
It wound up being the game-winning score.
Flacco completed 15 of 23 passes for 161 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions for a 100.1 quarterback rating.
He was 10 of 14 after halftime for 92 yards.
And the Ravens converted 6 of 9 third downs in the second half and 7 of 15 for the game.
"When you have that kind of game plan, your line being so efficient on third downs, you have to come through," Flacco said. "We had a lot of guys come through for us and just made some big plays in those situations."
Flacco wasn’t sacked even once in the game, the first time that’s happened this season. He’s been sacked only twice in the past three games.
"Joe Flacco for president, and the offensive line for vice president," inside linebacker Jameel McClain said.
The Ravens scored one more time on a 39-yard Billy Cundiff field goal in the fourth quarter.
The defense was the story, though.
Flacco admired the view from the sidelines as he watched Smith corralled time and time again while Suggs and flexed his muscles and swaggered back to the huddle.
"It wasn’t even because we were bringing a lot of pressure and stuff like that," Flacco said. "We had a four-man rush and guys just beating their guys. It’s good to see when you’re on the sideline and guys can put pressure on the opposing quarterback."
The 49ers scored the only points of the third quarter when David Akers booted a 52-yard field goal with room to spare.
The mighty boot tied the game at 6-6 heading into the fourth quarter.
The Ravens built a 6-3 lead at halftime behind a 23-yard Cundiff field goal, but should have been up a touchdown if not for a squandered red-zone opportunity.
After a Flacco interception by 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown was nullified because he put an arm bar on rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith that prevented him from making an attempt on the football, the Ravens took over at the 49ers’ 15-yard line.
However, they hit a road block once they reached the 49ers’ one-yard line.
First, running back Ray Rice ran outside to his right instead of cutting through an inside hole and was decked for a loss of four yards by safety C.J. Spillman.
"The only one that got me a little on edge was when we couldn’t get it in from the one," Rice said. "It was just a bum play. We didn’t get it done, and that’s one thing they can hang their hats on. They are a great defense, but I thought we had it.
"That’s going to itch us for next week. I’m not saying that we were going to blow them out, but if we score seven on that drive right down there, the game is totally different."
On third down, Flacco tried to salvage the drive by running a quarterback draw. He was tackled for no gain and Cundiff entered the game to kick the field goal.
The Ravens avoided a potential momentum-changing drive when cornerback Lardarius Webb intercepted Smith’s underthrown bomb intended for imposing wide receiver Braylon Edwards at the end of the first half.
Webb picked off his team-high fourth pass of the year by undercutting Edwards and adeptly positioning himself for the interception.
"It was simple," Webb said. "He tried to go deep. They tried to big boy me. And I played it well, but he had to get the ball out right then, so it made it easy on me."
The 49ers answered the Ravens’ first score with a 45-yard David Akers field goal to tie the score at 3-3 in the first quarter.
The key play was Smith locating athletic former University of Maryland tight end Vernon Davis for a 20-yard reception up the right sideline.
The Ravens struck first in the first quarter on a balanced drive that stalled at the 49ers’ 20-yard line after a 10-yard Ray Rice run and receptions of 22 and 16 yards for wide receiver Anquan Boldin.
Cundiff staked the Ravens to a 3-0 lead with his 39-yard field goal.
49ers All-Pro middle linebacker Patrick Willis crushed Ravens backup running back Ricky Williams in the first quarter, but that didn’t set the tone for the entire game.
The Ravens won almost every physical encounter.
The Ravens are undefeated in six home games this season, winning nine consecutive games at M&T Bank Stadium, including 16 of their past 17 games in Baltimore.
And the Ravens improved to 25-5 at home under Harbaugh and are now tied with the New England Patriots for the most home wins in the NFL since 2008.
Now, the Ravens are in first place in the AFC North prior to the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-3) playing the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night. The Ravens own the tiebreaker over Pittsburgh if they finish with identical records by already sweeping their AFC North rivals.
The Ravens have the next three days off before returning to work to prepare for a divisional road game against the Cleveland Browns.
"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 continue to do it," Flacco said. "When we come back, we’re playing Cleveland on the road. They’re a good football team."
Having lost three previous road games this season after emotional victories, the Ravens are mindful of the importance of following this win in strong fashion.
"It’s just a big win for us, it’s an opportunity going forward," Harbaugh said. "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."