Monday Night Football Preview Week 16 (2023)

Merry Christmas everyone! I hope all of you are enjoying the holidays with family and friends. It has been a while since I have written an article for my blog. Blame final exams as the last 2 - 3 weeks of the fall semester can be intense for yours truly. While I am not a student, writing final exams, preparing students for those dreaded assessments, and then grading their work can be a time consuming process. I am glad it's all over!

What a great way to kick off the holiday break than with perhaps the best matchup we have had this NFL season. Two 11-3 teams. Each one holds the #1 seed and possesses the higher point differential in their respective conferences. This can easily be a Super Bowl preview. Baltimore is a very well coached team and a resilient one given that they lost their starting RB (JK Dobbins) early in the year and then one of their top pass catchers (Mark Andrews) just a few weeks ago. Still, we all know that the true identity of the Ravens offense is solely attributed to one person: Lamar Jackson. He does it all with his arm and his legs. He may not be putting up the gaudy stats that he did during his 2nd year in the NFL (2019) but Jackson is still a threat to chew up big yards on the ground which puts opposing defenses on high alert. That means Jackson will often find a receiver in a favorable situation should a defender bite whenever Jackson is on the move while in the pocket.

Still, Baltimore is a team that loves to run the ball. In fact, the Ravens lead the NFL with rushing play percentage at 50.83%. The league median is around 42% and those who watch football know the NFL has become more of a passing league over the last 15-20 years. Guess which team is 2nd in rushing play percentage? You guessed it ... the 49ers at 49.76%! What does all that mean? That means that controlling the clock and ultimately controlling the tempo of the game will yield great results as we have witnessed this season with a combined record of 226 for the Ravens and 49ers. Sometimes keeping things simple and old school like running the ball is the best path to success on the gridiron.

Meanwhile, the 49ers haven't been plagued by the injury bug like Baltimore has and it seems that injury is probably the only thing that can stop the 49ers but we shall see on Christmas night. Clearly this will be the 49ers biggest test yet. They succeeded by exorcising their demons in Philadelphia earlier this month and they have dominated their division. Also, the 49ers have played a rather tough schedule with nine of their games against teams that rank in the top half of ESPN's NFL Power Rankings. San Francisco has gone 7-2 in those games with two of those losses against the Ohio teams.

After the Week 5 win against Dallas, I was comparing this current brand of the 49ers to the 1989 team that ran through the competition in the playoffs. However, that was incredibly premature of me to do so since the 49ers would then lose 3 in a row. Granted, Cleveland, Minnesota, and Cincinnati are playoff contenders but it was shock to see the 49ers stumble so hard after such a hot start. However, sometimes you need to lose to win and I think the 49ers are on a war path and, again, the only thing that can stop them is injury. San Francisco has experienced playoff heartbreak 3 times in the last 4 seasons and they are pretty much done being the bridesmaid or even the maid of honor. They are ready to get hitched and there is an outstanding chance it will happen this year. In some ways, the 2023 49ers are very much like the 1994 team which of course was the last time the 49ers won a Super Bowl. I was a senior in high school then and now I am 46, married with 3 kids and nearly 20 years of service with my current employer. Oh, how time flies!

Back then, the 49ers came close to glory but their wings would get clipped by the Dallas Cowboys. Once the 49ers figured out how to overcome that obstacle, there was no stopping them. Beating Philadelphia on the road and doing so in dominant fashion is exactly what the doctor ordered. There is simply too much talent on the 49ers. You have Brock Purdy who has to be one of the best underdog stories in NFL history having been picked last in the 2022 draft only to find himself the odds-on favorite to win the regular season MVP award. Then you have Christian McCaffrey, another strong MVP candidate, who will most likely win the Offensive Player of the Year. Throw in Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle and no wonder opposing defenses are clueless when it comes to deciding which player to focus on. Stack the box and Purdy will find one of his receivers open. Commit more defenders to the secondary and McCaffrey will make you pay. Kyle Shanahan is finally the puppet master we have all waited for him to become.

As much as I like John Harbaugh as a coach and as electric as Jackson is at the QB position, it just won't be enough to beat the 49ers, especially since it will be a home game for San Francisco. The time zone change will also be difficult for Baltimore since the 5:15 pM kick off will feel like 8:15 PM for the Ravens. The crowd at Levi's will be energized and ready to get one step closer to home field advantage. Plus Baltimore lost another talented offensive player in Keaton Mitchell whose blazing speed will be sorely missed. The 49ers defense is playing to its true potential and will be able to protect the early lead the offense will provide.

I expect another strong start for the 49ers and then for them to run away with the game in the 3rd quarter. Prediction: San Francisco 38 - Baltimore 24.

I won't waste your time predicting outcomes for the other games. This Monday night affair is the only game that matters. Enjoy it and GO NINERS!