“Potential Super Bowl previews” often turn out to not be Super Bowl previews at all, as two months is still a lot of time for a lot of things to happen — from injuries to fluky outcomes to other teams just plain improving at a faster rate and catching up to the “Super Bowl contenders” in question. But there is no disputing the appeal of this game between the current Number One seed in the NFC and the current Number Two seed (and likely best team in football at the moment) in the AFC. The 49ers have an incredible eight “two-score wins,” including four wins of three or more touchdowns, while Baltimore has six “two-score wins” and four wins of their own of three or more touchdowns (in fact, their smallest margin of victory in those four games was 36 points; sheesh!). The 49ers have a signature win against the Packers, while the Ravens have signature wins against the Seahawks, Patriots, and Texans. Somehow, this game is being buried on a packed early slate, but I guess that’s a complaint for another day. From an NFL perspective: happy to have this game.
From a DFS perspective: the identities of both teams are run-heavy, with the Ravens ranked 32nd in pass play rate and the 49ers ranked 31st. Baltimore leads the NFL in time of possession with an incredible 34:44 mark, while the 49ers rank second at 32:50 — leaving over 7.5 minutes of lost play time compared to what these two teams usually average (good for about 13 lost plays in all). While this is slightly off-topic: the fantasy/analytics movement toward “LOLz” at teams that are built around running the ball is funny to me. As noted previously: there is lots of gold in the data that is uncovered along the way to these LOLz, but there are a lot of misconceptions as well. I guess that’s also a story for another day.
In any case, the overall “big picture” of this game is two teams that want to win with the run game and defense, while chewing up clock and leaving the opponent with little to work. Each team is also built to take away the pass, which quickly boxes in opponents as they fall behind and have limited play volume and fewer clear paths to keeping pace. The Ravens have not allowed a pass catcher to top 100 yards since Week 4, while the 49ers are forcing the shallowest aDOT in the league AND allowing the second lowest catch rate in the league — a nearly impossible combination to pull off.
Meanwhile, the 49ers have been attackable on the ground — ranking 16th in DVOA and allowing 4.33 yards per carry to enemy running backs (a category in which Lamar Jackson can also be placed). Without a doubt, San Francisco has the minds to try to slow down the Ravens’ powerful rushing attack, but even with OWS favorite Fred Warner balling out in place of the injured Kwon Alexander, it’s fair to assume the 49ers don’t have the personnel to truly give the Ravens fits if we played out this slate a hundred times. We should look for the 49ers to tighten up downfield and try to force Lamar to work short in the pass game, while hoping to maintain assignment discipline that will allow multiple players to have a shot at taking down the Ravens’ QB instead of leaving him in one-on-one situations. Of course, this is easier said than done, and even two-on-one situations have been wins for Lamar fairly often this year. San Francisco has been most attackable to the edges, where Lamar does most of his damage. Lamar has posted six slate-winning games and three additional elite games in 11 total contests — with only one game this year that would qualify as a true disappointment. He has done this in spite of finishing with 24 or fewer pass attempts in over half his games.
The Ravens’ run game is also built off Mark Ingram (recent touch counts of 13 // 17 // 9 // 16 // 16) and Gus Edwards (8 // 7 // 4 // 8 // 14). While Ingram has been limited in touches, he does have the ninth most red zone carries and the fourth most carries inside the five, and his 12 touchdowns have provided him with four spiked weeks to go with the lower price-considered floor he carries. The passing attack for Baltimore, of course, is typically built off low volume and explosive plays, so betting on this area of the Ravens attack in this spot is betting on broken plays in a tough matchup. The 49ers have allowed the fewest pass plays of 20+ yards (most teams aren’t even close).
The Ravens have been more attackable on the ground than through the air of late, but they haven’t been much fun to pick on regardless, with point totals allowed in their last six games of 17 // 16 // 20 // 13 // 7 // 6. The 49ers, of course, continue to provide us with one of the broadest (and most Upside-Sapping) divisions of backfield labor in the NFL, so the biggest impact the 49ers strong rush offense is likely to have against the “moderately attackable” Baltimore run defense is the clock-bleeding they may be able to do in this spot, which would impact the opportunities for smash scores from Lamar and company on the other side. Tevin Coleman shapes up as the leader in this backfield, with recent touch totals of 13 // 14 // 13 // 15 // 13. Behind Coleman, it will be Matt Breida in the lead and a bit of Raheem Mostert sprinkled in if Breida is ready to return, while Mostert will take the majority of the Number Two duties if Breida is inactive. This backfield is “betting on touchdowns” in this spot, with touchdown expectations for the 49ers not especially high on paper.
The 49ers passing attack has been more exciting lately, with George Kittle going 6-129-1 in his return last week, and with Deebo Samuel going 8-112-0 and 8-134-0 in the two games Kittle missed. (Emmanuel Sanders is also still in the mix — albeit as a not-quite-fully-healthy piece at the moment as he continues to gut out his rib injury.) With Baltimore allowing the fifth fewest points and the lowest opponent time of possession in the league, they haven’t really allowed stats to pile up to any position, but the softest individual matchup belongs to Kittle, who will do battle with Chuck Clark. Clark has filled in admirably for Tony Jefferson, but he hasn’t really been tested by a player close to Kittle’s caliber — and while the offensive environment as a whole is a dent in expectations for all 49ers, Kittle is the player likeliest to tilt the offensive environment in a different direction with his play.
JM’s Interpretation ::
At the front end of the week, I feel like I’m likely to enjoy this game as a fan rather than with a heavy DFS investment. Lamar, of course, is the player in which I’ll have the most potential interest, as he is one of the most lock-and-load players in the NFL. Much like tougher spots we’ve run into for CMC or Michael Thomas: Lamar’s chances of hitting his ceiling are lower than normal in this spot, but there’s still a strong chance he gets there.
I’ve also avoided the Baltimore backfield for the most part this year, as I prefer to bet on volume and a bigger pass catching role when targeting this position (essentially allowing me to take the win when the yardage-and-touchdown backs miss, and still giving me plenty of paths to making up what I missed when the yardage-and-touchdown guys hit), and I’ve generally been getting my Baltimore pass-catcher exposure through Lamar — though of course, you can always make a tourney case for grabbing some additional exposure to the Ravens offense if you want to go here yourself. If I were branching out beyond Lamar, Ingram (as a risk-embracing play in search of a multi-touchdown ceiling) is the player I would be likeliest to land on.
With the 49ers entering a tough matchup as road underdogs on something of a spread-the-wealth offense, I’ll likely avoid this unit myself — though I’ll never argue against a bet on Kittle if you’re feeling aggressive, and there are other ways to approach this game if you want to bet on it playing out in a different manner than the likeliest setup. It is highly likely that no “have to have it” scores emerge from this offense — but when two great teams get together, crazy things can happen.