OWINGS MILLS – The brothers won’t be blocking and tackling tonight, not unless they engage in an impromptu sibling scrimmage before kickoff.
And Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh and San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh will square off strategically, plotting schemes and motivating their respective football teams as a historic meeting unfolds on Thanksgiving at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Harbaughs are the first brothers to face each other as head coaches in NFL history, competing in this so-called Harbaugh Bowl for their first an organized athletic competition against each other since an American Legion game decades ago won by John Harbaugh.
“This is playing your brother,” John Harbaugh said Wednesday afternoon on the eve of the game. “This is the real thing. The beauty of it is Jim and I are not going to be lined up out there. That would not be pretty. You are going to see two great football teams going at it. To me, that’s what’s exciting about it.”
Harbaugh makes a strong point considering the two combatants’ mettle.
The Ravens (7-3) are in first place in the AFC North, and have made the playoffs for three consecutive years.
And the 49ers (9-1) are the surprise breakthrough team of the league with Jim Harbaugh a runaway leader for NFL Coach of the Year honors.
Both teams are headlined by stingy, physical defenses. Both teams have excellent running backs.
“It’s going to be hate, but, at the end of the day, it’s a game,” Ravens strong safety Bernard Pollard said of the dueling brothers. “I think they both understand that. We, as players, can’t get caught up in that because we’re in between the white. They’re outside the white.
“I think both know and understand it. They’re not going to let this game be bigger than what it is. We can’t think about the Harbaugh brothers. We have to think about the Baltimore Ravens.”
Nonetheless, a large contingent of Ravens players said that John Harbaugh’s personal battle with his younger brother does provide motivational fuel.
They’ve love to win the game, and reward their coach with some bragging rights.
“We really want to win it bad for him,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “We’ve kind of seen that they were going to kind of get after each other like they did when they were little. It’s going to be fun to be a part of another sibling rivalry.”
Spearheaded by All-Pro middle linebacker Patrick Willis, the 49ers have yet to allow a rushing touchdown and rank first in the NFL in rushing defense.
They also lead the NFL in scoring defense, allowing only 14.5 points per contest.
The 49ers’ catalyst is Willis, an athletic, instinctive leader who strikes ball carriers with vicious hits.
He’s a protégé of Ravens All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who’s a question mark for this game due to a toe injury that sidelined him against the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday.
“Oh man, he’s a beast,” Ravens running back Ray Rice said. “I ain’t bashful about it. Their run defense reminds me of a lot of our defense. I know it’s going to be a challenge. It starts with their middle linebacker.
“There’s not a lot of talking with him. He’s a fiery guy. He’s next in line to Ray Lewis. There’s a reason why he’s making the Pro Bowl every year.”
Although these aren’t natural rivals because they’re in different conferences and rarely play each other, the national stage and the buildup with the two brothers should bring the intensity to a fever pitch.
“The emotions are going to be running high,” Rice said. “It’s going to be something special.”
The Harbaugh brothers are no strangers to epic clashes.
They grew up with makeshift games like throwing a tennis ball through a coat hanger rim to play basketball or trying to heave a football over a tree branch.
Occasionally, their emotions would bubble over as kids.
“We have never had a fight as adults, but we had some knock-down drag-outs when we were younger,” John Harbaugh said. “I can remember my mom screaming, wailing and crying, ‘You’re brothers! You are not supposed to act like this!’”
The Ravens need this game to maintain their edge in the AFC North even though they’ve already swept the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have an identical record. And they’re one game ahead of the Bengals in the division race.
Now, they have a daunting task: beating a red-hot 49ers team that has vanquished eight consecutive opponents and is undefeated in four previous trips this year to the Eastern Time zone.
Harbaugh hasn’t made it a secret to his team how badly he wants this game, explaining that to them Monday during a team meeting.
“It means a lot to him,” cornerback Chris Carr said. “He’s highly competitive. Even though he may not talk about it, he wants to get this win more. We want to get a win for him.
“He talked to us the very first day on Monday that they had a rivalry together as kids and how competitive they are. Then, he told us how it’s not going to be about that. It’s about the two teams. He addressed it, and then it was back to football.”