Barber: 49ers should take hope from 20-17 loss to Ravens

This was the game that proved the 49ers are capable of winning the Super Bowl. The game they lost in Baltimore. The game after which they trudged off the field disappointed and bruised.

Losing 20-17 to the Ravens on a last-second field goal was no moral victory, because those things are almost entirely mythical. It was, in fact, a loss, and a big one. It pushed the 49ers into a more savage fight for the best record in the NFC, and made upcoming games against the Saints and Seahawks doubly fraught.

But when head coach Kyle Shanahan watched film of the game, and shared it with his assistants, and conveyed the lessons to the full team, there must have been a tremendous sense of optimism. The 49ers did a number of things wrong in that game, but it wasn’t an indictment. It was affirmative proof. Not that the Niners deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the NFL’s elite teams, because everyone already knew that.

No, this was proof that Shanahan’s team has a real chance of leaving Miami with the Lombardi Trophy in February - no matter which opponent the 49ers might face (including the Ravens), and even if they don’t make any major adjustments to personnel or scheme.

We can start by acknowledging that Baltimore has the right to be called the best team in the NFL right now. It isn’t really a debatable point.

In the five games leading up to Sunday’s showdown at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens beat, among other foes, the Seahawks, Patriots and Texans. Those are some fine football teams, and the cumulative score of those three Baltimore wins was 108-43. The Ravens mowed through the NFL’s best like fresh clover. Six days before playing the 49ers, they humiliated the Rams 45-6 on “Monday Night Football.” The Rams look nothing like the team that went to the Super Bowl last season. But they are competitive, as evidenced by their bounce-back dismantling of Arizona on Sunday, and the Ravens made them look like scrubs.

Baltimore hasn’t lost since late September. Before facing the 49ers, it hadn’t played a close game since mid-October.

So yes, this was the ultimate litmus test for the 2019 49ers. And they failed. But by the slimmest margin imaginable, in a way that breeds hope for the coming two months.

You can’t forget where the game was played. The rule of thumb in the NFL has long been that home-field advantage is worth three points. I found one website, Boyds Bets, that put the actual number at closer to 2.7 points. Meaning that if two teams are equal in every way, either of them would be favored by at least 2½ points at home.

I imaging that number goes up when a West Coast team travels to the Eastern time zone for a game. Too many teams (cough, Raiders) have used that an excuse for poor performances over the years. But it’s definitely a factor.

And Baltimore is a tough place for any visiting team. When The Athletic ranked the NFL’s various home-field advantages in August, it ranked Baltimore No. 11. That isn’t super high, but it reflected the Ravens’ strong road performance in 2018. The article said this: “Only the Patriots have posted a higher home DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) than the Ravens, who have gone 17-7 at home over the past three seasons.”

Make that 22-8 through four-plus seasons after beating the 49ers.

So it was a pit of vipers the 49ers entered Sunday morning. And they basically played the Ravens to a draw.

Granted, “basically” is carrying a lot of weight in that previous sentence, because the 49ers lost. They lost on an even (if squishy) playing field, without undue input from the officiating crew. You could say San Francisco was hit harder by injuries, especially to defensive backs Jaquiski Tartt and Richard Sherman, but not enough to be an explanation.

So no, the 49ers did not deserve to win. But they lost as close a game as you can imagine. They lost on a ?49-yard field goal as time expired. They lost despite outgaining the Ravens 331-283 and matching them with one turnover.

The game was close enough that any of several crucial plays - Jimmy Garoppolo’s incomplete pass to George Kittle on fourth-and-1 with 6:33 left, the Ravens’ fourth-and-1 conversion on their half of the field with 4:39 remaining, Shanahan’s cavalier approach to the clock at the end of the first half - might have spelled a 49ers victory if it had gone the other way.

The 49ers have to be pleased with how they responded to Sunday’s challenges. They trailed twice before Justin Tucker’s 49-yard whistle-beater, and came back to tie the game both times. And they didn’t get killed by Lamar Jackson, Baltimore’s MVP-candidate quarterback. Jackson was brilliant, as he has been all year. But his numbers against the 49ers were modest: 105 passing yards, 101 rushing yards. After halftime, Jackson had 43 passing yards and 44 rushing yards.

“There really weren’t any big, dramatic adjustments,” Shanahan said Monday on a conference call from Sarasota, Florida, where the 49ers will practice this week in anticipation of a game at New Orleans. “I think it was settling guys down. We didn’t change anything up schematically on defense, but guys get used to seeing that stuff. … We got out of a couple gaps, which does happen with a lot of the zone-read and things like that. Our guys settled down a little bit, and once they did I thought we made it a lot tougher on them in the second half.”

In fact, the 49ers have logged some important work against dual-threat quarterbacks recently. Their past five games have included two against Arizona’s Kyler Murray, one against Seattle’s Russell Wilson and the one against Jackson. They didn’t show straight-incline improvement, but Robert Saleh’s pass defense looked a lot tighter Sunday than it did against Murray on Halloween.

These are important lessons for a team with Super Bowl aspirations. Another lesson: The 49ers can get there, and they can win the thing.

The Niners just played the best team in football to a draw for 60 minutes (losing after the clock hit zeroes), and they did it in a hostile environment. You can’t take that result away from the Ravens, but would it have been a different outcome had the game been played at Levi’s Stadium? Or what if they played a rematch on neutral turf?

That last one is a relevant question, because the 49ers would love to do just that in Miami in Feb. 2.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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