BALTIMORE -- By the time Justin Tucker was ready, the steady rain that had fallen all day had given way to a heavy mist. The dirt was peeking through between the hash marks and the gray and grime enhanced the feel of an old-school slugfest between the NFL's two biggest heavyweights, elevated by a next-generation offense and a bend toward analytics.
Tucker's 49-yard field goal was never in doubt and the Baltimore Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers, 20-17. A string of blowouts against some of the NFL's winningest teams -- the Seahawks, Patriots, Texans and Rams -- had made the Ravens the sizzle of the season. But this victory gives them something more: heft. The Ravens gutted it out against the best, fastest defense in football -- Lamar Jackson said the 49ers had 11 players around the ball on every play -- and the one that slowed them the most, and still won. It did not provide as many highlight-reel moments as some of Baltimore's easier games, but that is the point. The explosive plays are eye-catchers, but this was a reminder that the Ravens should not be confused for a finesse team. It turns out the Ravens can win a brass-knuckles fight, with no deep passing game and few of the theatrics that have made them the darlings. The AFC might still have to go through Foxborough on the way to the Super Bowl, but its best team right now resides in Baltimore.
"To win a game like that is really valuable," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. "We expect every game to be just like that. And sometimes they're not, but the ones that count, and the ones that are, you have to be ready for."
Every game has certainly not been like that lately, which is what made this one so compelling. The Ravens had not even punted on a drive with Jackson at quarterback since Nov. 3, their 17-point victory over the New England Patriots. They had not had a game where an opponent scored first since Oct. 13, when they hosted the Cincinnati Bengals. No other opponent in the last two months has held the Ravens and Jackson in check like the 49ers, with an assist from the constant rain, did.
Jackson, who finished 14 of 23 for 105 yards and one touchdown pass, has taken to wearing a shirt after games that reads "Nobody cares. Work Harder." That sums up how grounded and focused he has remained, even as the chants of "MVP" echo wherever he plays. Jackson was still angry about how poorly he threw some passes because of the weather. He was able to run for 101 yards -- he needs just 23 more for 1,000 on the season -- by getting the Niners to bite on his fakes and then scamper around the edges. His four 100-yard rushing games are the most by a quarterback in a single season since 1950. But Jackson also lost his first fumble of the season when he was stripped at the end of a 20-yard run on a spectacular play by safety Marcell Harris as the Ravens were driving to lengthen their lead just after halftime. The fumble halted the Ravens' momentum -- they would have taken a 10-point lead, at minimum, had they scored then -- and allowed the 49ers to tie the game on their next drive. It was that play that gnawed at him.
"It was my fault," Jackson said. "I'm hot about that right now. If I keep the ball in my hand, you know, we're going to score. That drive had a lot of success going on. But that one play, it shortened us. I ain't moved on from it yet."
By the final drive, he had at least set it aside and cleanly moved the Ravens 34 yards with safe passes and one perfectly executed quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 from his own 44-yard line. The clock kept ticking and the Ravens were taking very few chances, running into the pile for the final few plays to set up the field goal. Richard Sherman noted something about Jackson -- the quarterback has good judgment. He did not try to force any of his spectacular plays Sunday. He played a contained, controlled game, exactly what was needed to get off a wet field with a win.
When Tucker's kick went through, the Ravens raced onto the field in celebration, but it was striking that the 49ers were not particularly quiet or shaken in their own locker room. They are in the middle of a daunting stretch of games -- they are staying in Florida this week before their game against New Orleans -- and, despite the outcome, the 49ers had displayed no glaring deficiencies. The offense rolled up 331 yards, the running game doing well around the edges, something that Harbaugh said he needed to watch on tape.
The defense held the Ravens, the league's top offense in yards and scoring, to their fewest points this season and to just 283 yards, their second-fewest. They gave every other team plenty of material to pour over, although the speed of the 49ers' defensive line will make this blueprint difficult to duplicate.
"We expect to hold people to less than they have," said Sherman, who added he was in pain from a knee injury but would be ready to play against the Saints. "We're one of the best defenses in the league."
Sherman said he doesn't believe in measuring-stick games, but this was certainly one and future opponents of both teams won't take any comfort in what they saw. Every season, the NFL offers a handful of games that are played at such a high level, and it is easy to envision those teams going deep into the playoffs. Nobody who saw the Rams and Chiefs battle last season was surprised when both teams were among the NFL's final four teams. Nobody who saw this game doubts we are going to see a lot of these teams in January.
On his way down to the locker room, the Ravens' former general manager, Ozzie Newsome, stole a quick glance at a replay of the final field goal. Then he joined the rest of the crowd headed out. Someone in the stairwell breathed a sigh of relief and said he hoped the Ravens didn't see the 49ers again.
"I'll take it in Miami," someone else replied.
So would many of us.