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NFL storylines: Ravens-49ers match could be a Super Bowl preview

Lamar Jackson

(Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images)

On Fridays during each week of the NFL season, will take a look at what we believe to be the five most interesting storylines for that weekend’s games.

It could be about a player, a team, maybe a trend that’s developed over time that might impact a matchup. In other words, we’ll be fluid, reacting to what has happened in the league and what might be coming next.

This week’s Game of the Year

If we’re lucky, every NFL season will feature a game or two that serves as a possible preview of the Super Bowl. You’ll recall last year’s wild Rams-Chiefs game in Los Angeles. At the time, many pundits predicted it would foreshadow a likely rematch for the league championship.

Of course, a Dee Ford offsides penalty in the AFC Championship game against the Patriots prevented that from happening.

But what about this season? Might Sunday’s matchup between the Ravens and 49ers preview what might be coming in Super Bowl LIV in Miami?

This week, Ravens veteran safety Earl Thomas was asked about that very possibility.

“You think the 49ers are going to the Super Bowl?” Thomas said. “It could be. Let’s see. … When the Super Bowl comes, whoever we play, they’re going to be in trouble.”

This is going to be a marvelous game in Baltimore, one the NFL strangely has left dangling as a 1 p.m. start, as opposed to flexing into a more appealing late-afternoon kickoff.

The Ravens high-flying running game, led by MVP-to-be Lamar Jackson, will test itself again, this time against an aggressive 49ers defense with one of the best front sevens in the league.

The metrics department has taken notice. The Ravens (9-2) are now the favorite to win the Super Bowl, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. They have a 26.2 percent chance to win. The 49ers (10-1) are close behind.

This likely does not surprise Jackson. He predicted after the Ravens drafted him that he’d eventually win them a Super Bowl.

“He brought that vision since he got drafted,” Ravens receiver Willie Snead said. “If the guys around him ain’t got that vision, it’s like we got the wrong guys in the huddle. I feel like everybody in the huddle has that same vision – all 11 guys see the Super Bowl in our near future, and it starts with Lamar.”

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Jackson and 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo have the best combined record of any opposing starting quarterbacks since the merger. This will also be the first time in NFL history that teams coming off wins of at least 28 points will play.

The Ravens have the league’s top scoring offense (35.1 points) while the 49ers have allowed an NFC-low (14.8). It will be just the third time since the merger that teams with these type of numbers will meet in Week 13 or later. In each of the first two, one of the teams got to the Super Bowl.

Baltimore comes into December having scored at least 40 in each of its past three games  In those games, Jackson has 12 touchdown passes and zero interceptions for a 147.8 passer rating and has had a passer rating of 130-or-higher in each of those contests.

Mason Rudolph

(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Browns-Steelers might be nasty

There are many reasons to consider Sunday’s Browns-Steelers rematch in Pittsburgh critical. No one is catching the Ravens in the NFC North, but the Steelers would be 7-5 if they win and the Browns would be on a four-game winning streak at 6-6 with the Bengals and Cardinals waiting the next two weeks. A wild card awaits.

Unfortunately, this game will be more about what happened in Cleveland the last time they played, the big brawl at the end of the game resulting in the season-long suspension of Browns defensive end Myles Garrett for hitting Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph with his helmet.

Some of the on-field tension will be relieved because Rudolph has since lost his starting job to Devlin Hodges. You’ll recall Garrett tried defending himself at his appeal at the NFL Headquarters by saying Rudolph instigated the attack by hurling racial slurs at the player. The league did not buy it.

But most of the action will certainly play out in parking lots before the game and in the stands while its being played. During last week’s Dolphins-Browns game in Cleveland, a highlight of Rudolph being intercepted in Cincinnati was played on the scoreboard. Browns fans reacted by chanting “Pittsburgh suck” and “Rudolph sucks.”

In the parking lot before the game, some blindfolded Browns fans were trying to smash a pinata of Rudolph with a Steelers helmet. We can only image what will be going on at Heinz Field.

“Playoff atmosphere,” said Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield. “We’ll see what happens.”

Derek Carr

(Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Battle for the AFC West

Before their progress was so rudely interrupted last week by the New York Jets – a 34-3 loss which still defies logic – the Raiders appeared to be in a position to at least threaten the Chiefs for the division championship. Now we’re not so sure.

You’ll agree this really hasn’t been a stellar season in Kansas City. The high-efficiency offense that carried them to the cusp of the Super Bowl last season as seemingly regressed this season. Remember, the Chiefs scored more than 35 points per game in 2018 and no opponent held them to under 26.

But now that the Chargers and Broncos have fallen from the race, all that’s likely left for the Chiefs to do Sunday is defeat the Raiders for a second time this season. They play in Kansas City. That would essentially give Kansas City a three-game lead with four games left and leave the Raiders 6-6 in a battle with about four teams for the second AFC wild card.

“We better show up or they’re going to beat us by 50,” Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said. “They’re a really good football team, one of the best in the NFL. Hopefully, our guys, myself included, when we show up in Arrowhead … we’re ready to go. I believe we will be.”

Carr understands how difficult a task this might be. He hasn’t played particularly well at Arrowhead Stadium during his career, losing all five starts by an average of 27-12.

According to ESPN, Carr’s passing yards in KC decreases by almost 100 (285 yards in all other away stadiums, 186 yards at Arrowhead) and his completion percentage falls from 63 percent to 55 percent. And he’s also been sacked 17 times.

An important addition for the Chiefs would be the presence of Tyreek Hill. He injured a hamstring against the Chargers wo weeks ago. Kansas City coach Andy Reid is confident he will play.

“I think he’ll be all right,” Reid said. “We’ll see how it goes. Listen, I’m optimistic. I know he loves to play the game.”

Philip Rivers

(Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images)

Old man Rivers?

It’s been a long time since the Chargers last played in Mexico City against the Chiefs and that’s only given critics of quarterback Philip Rivers a chance to put their complaints into public view.

Rivers tossed four interceptions in the 24-17 loss to the Chiefs, the final one in the end zone with 18 seconds to play. That gave him seven interceptions in the last two games, something no Chargers QB since Erik Kramer in 1999 had done. And who would have thought we’d ever mention both of them in the same sentence.

Rivers now has 13 interceptions and 15 turnovers this season and the last time that happened was in 2016. But now Rivers is 38 years old and in the last year of his contract and the Chargers need to make a decision about whether to re-sign him after the season.

Los Angeles is moving the ball, but it just can’t score. They collected 312 yards in the first half against the Chiefs without an offensive touchdowns. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the 203-yard differential they enjoyed at the half was the largest for a trailing team since 1981.

Despite the problems the offense has had, veteran linebacker Thomas Davis told the Los Angeles Times this week that he places the blame for the 4-7 start of the defense.

“Our record says we haven’t played well enough,” Davis said. “That’s the ultimate thing that determines how we’ve played as a defense. The offense has put up enough points for us to be more successful.

“We just haven’t figured it out for four quarters. We’ve played extremely well at times, and other times we’ve been inconsistent. If we do a better job in certain situations, our record could be much, much better.”

We beg to differ: They held the Chiefs to 24 points and 310 yards and the Raiders to 278 yards and 26 points the week before. What’s more, their  defense hasn’t allowed more 27 points in a game and ranks fifth in points allowed, fourth in passing yards given up and tied for fifth in big plays surrendered this season.

The pressure is going to really be on Rivers Sunday against the Broncos.

Bill Belichick

(Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Patriots report to sickbay

This might be the time to start worrying about the Patriots under-performing offense, which has averaged only 16.7 points in the last three games. The Pats actually have to be concerned now about maintaining their lead in the AFC East after the Bills powerful statement on Thursday in Dallas.

New England begins a two-game stretch against the Texans and Chiefs on Sunday. And those are two offenses that can put pressure on the Patriots top-notch defense.

But what really has us worried about them this week is their health.

The Pats had eight players miss practice on Wednesday due to flu-like symptoms. And then on Thursday, kicker Nick Folk, the third placekicker the team has used this season, had an emergency appendectomy.

“We had guys come in, you’d look in their eyes and you could just tell they were out of it,” Pats safety Devin McCourty said. “Hopefully a day at home, with meds and rest, [will] helps guys out.”

Among those who were ill: safety Patrick Chung, linebacker Jamie Collins, cornerback Stephon Gilmore, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and left tackle Isaiah Wynn.

“As coach would say, we have to stay germ free,” said special teams maven Matthew Slater. “It is the season.”

New England is one of five NFL teams with at least nine wins in the first 11 games, which ties a league record. But it’s just the second time in the past 28 seasons that five teams have reached nine-or-more wins this early in the year.

Meanwhile, the Patriots signed Kai Forbath to replace Folk, who is expected to miss two games.