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."
Ravens notebook; R. Lewis' status' up in the air, listed as questionable
OWINGS MILLS – Baltimore Ravens All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis' status for tonight's game remains a fluid situation due to a toe injury, and he hasn't been ruled out by team officials.
He's officially listed as questionable, which means the team feels there's a 50-percent chance that he'll be able to play.
The former NFL Defensive Player of the Year is expected to attempt to play and whether he can go will be determined by gauging how he looks in warmup drills.
Team officials said there's still an outside chance that Lewis will be available against the San Francisco 49ers even though he was limited in practice all week and is walking with a limp.
Lewis missed the Ravens' 31-24 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, snapping a streak of 57 consecutive games.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh shed no light on Lewis' prospects of playing.
"None that I would share," Harbaugh said when asked about the 12-time Pro Bowl selection. "I really don't know. It's not like we've got some secret that we're holding back from anybody on any of these guys. We've got three, four, five guys that are up in the air.
"Our biggest issue right now is nicks and bumps and bruises. If you want to make a comparison, they're healthy. We're not quite as healthy right now, and that's something we'll be crossing our fingers for with different guys like that."
Lewis issued a statement Tuesday and hasn't conducted interviews since the news of his injury was first reported by the Times.
"I apologize for not being available as I normally am on a day like today, but I am taking every opportunity to get treatment on my foot to prepare to play on Thursday," Lewis said. "Anytime you see your team on the field, you always want to be out there with them. As the leader of your team, it doesn't sit well with me to be on the sidelines.
"But I was the biggest cheerleader out there on Sunday, and I was truly proud of the way we played as a team. I am doing everything in my power to get back as fast as I can, whether that's this week, next week or whenever it is, I am doing everything I can to be out there with my team. I want to play Thursday night, and I am making some progress."
49ers tight end Vernon Davis said he doesn't care if Lewis plays or not.
"It doesn't really make a difference whether he is playing or whether he isn't," Davis said. "I don't think that one guy on defense could make a big difference. It doesn't matter. He is a good player, don't get me wrong. I would love to play against one of the best players on their team, but if he is not, then oh well.
"I don't think it changes anything. It doesn't, because the next guy that is behind him will fill his shoes, and I'm sure they will have him doing the same thing that Ray Lewis does – trying to make tackles and make plays."
Defensive tackle Arthur Jones (concussion) didn't practice all week and was ruled out for the second game in a row.
Inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe has been limited with hamstring and groin injuries, but is still slated to start at middle linebacker if Lewis is sidelined again.
Ellerbe is listed as questionable along with cornerback Chris Carr (back), who returned to practice Wednesday on a limited basis. Carr predicted that he will play.
Rookie running back Anthony Allen (hamstring) is questionable.
Reserve safety Haruki Nakamura (thigh) is probable.
49ers running back Bruce Miller (concussion) is probable.
The following players are probable: running back Frank Gore (knee), wide receiver Braylon Edwards (knee), offensive tackle Anthony Davis (ankle), cornerback Chris Culliver (shoulder) and wide receiver Michael Crabtree (foot).
BYNES PROMOTED: With Lewis' situation rendering depth thin at linebacker, the Ravens promoted rookie linebacker Josh Bynes from the practice squad to the active roster.
The Ravens created a roster spot for Bynes by cutting center-guard Bryan Mattison.
Meanwhile, the New York Jets have signed offensive tackle Austin Howard off the Ravens' practice squad to their active roster. He's a 6-foot-7, 331-pound former Philadelphia Eagles lineman.
After going undrafted out of Auburn, Bynes signed with the Ravens in July and was released on Sept. 3.
The 6-foot-1, 240-pound former Southeastern Conference standout joined the Ravens' practice squad on Nov. 9.
At Auburn, Bynes recorded 238 career tackles, seven interceptions, 19 pass deflections, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Now, the Ravens have two vacancies on their eight-man practice squad.
TORREY SMITH HONORED: Rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week.
Smith caught six passes for 165 yards and a touchdown against the Bengals.
A second-round draft pick from the University of Maryland, Smith established a new franchise rookie record for receiving yards with 590 for the season.
Smith has caught 29 passes for five touchdowns and leads the NFL with a 20.3 average per reception.
Only Randy Moss and Ken Burrow have previously had more than one 150-receiving yard games with at least one touchdown.
TOP DEFENSE: The 49ers lead the NFL in rushing defense, surrendering just 73.9 rushing yards per game.
They're first in scoring defense, allowing only 14.5 points per contest.
Ranked eighth in total defense, the 49ers also lead the NFL in turnover margin with a plus-17 differential.
Harbaugh said he regards the 49ers as one of the top defenses he's seen since he began coaching in the league.
"Absolutely," he said. "Obviously, they've done a great job."
PARENTS' PLANS: Jack and Jackie Harbaugh, the parents of John Harbaugh and Jim Harbaugh, have plans to attend the game at M&T Bank Stadium.
However, they won't be sitting in the stands or in a private box.
The team has made arrangements for the Harbaughs to watch the game on television in an office inside the stadium
"He just really doesn't want any cameras on him during the game.," John Harbaugh said of Jack Harbaugh. "He has been holding up well. He'll be nervous. This has been tough on them. It's been great, but they're torn, I think. They want to go through it. It'll be a new experience for them, too."
IMPRESSED: 49ers defensive star Patrick Willis is regarded as the top young middle linebacker in the game.
A protégé of Lewis, Willis has been named to the Pro Bowl every year since entering the league in 2007.
Willis is averaging 149 tackles with five interceptions and 17 sacks. He's already forced four fumbles this year.
"They're both great players," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said of Willis and Lewis. "Like Ray, Patrick is the consummate team player and he's the consummate, great five-tool linebacker. Ray does it all. Patrick does it all.
"If Patrick can do it consistently, year in and year out like Ray has done it, then I believe Patrick, like Ray, will be the Willie Mays of linebackers. Patrick is that good. He's got a chance to be one of the great linebackers of all time."
The 49ers have two outstanding inside linebackers in Willis and NaVarro Bowman.
"Those two inside linebackers are a great tandem in there," John Harbaugh said. "I think they are they bell cows in that defense. They set the standard in the middle for those guys. They are sideline to sideline.. It's just impressive to watch them."
It will be up to All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach to clear a path for Ray Rice with his lead blocks on Willis.
"He's got great instincts, a very physical guy," Leach said. "He can play the run and pass. He's just an all-around good linebacker. We're going to have our hands full."
TALENTED LINE: The 49ers' offensive line features three former first-round draft picks in left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Mike Iupati and right offensive tackle Joe Staley.
"Physical, the left side of their offensive line is really good," Harbaugh said. "Their whole offensive line has played very well, but those two guys on the left side, Iupati and Staley, have been special pass protection-wise, run blocking-wise. I think Mike Solari does an excellent job with that offensive line."
HOMECOMING: For 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, this represents a chance to play close to home.
He played collegiately at Maryland and grew up in Washington.
"It'll be nice," Davis said. "A lot of family, a lot of people and things like that."
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