No debate: The Ravens are now the NFL's best team

Kimberley A. Martin
Senior NFL writer

His eyes guided them and his feet carried them. But just when you thought Lamar Jackson would be the one to tip the scales in this heavyweight, Sunday afternoon slugfest, a different and far-less-mobile hero emerged.

With no trace of wind and a light mist falling on the field at M&T Bank Stadium, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker took his position. And with one smooth kick, and an arcing football that slipped through the uprights, the Ravens' emphatic statement was officially complete.

The debate can now be put to rest. 

Baltimore is, without a doubt, the best team in football right now. 

And Ravens-49ers is the Super Bowl rematch we all deserve.

Do your thing Football Gods and make it so. 

Inject this matchup into my veins come February. Let me bask in the beauty of these two brash, dominant defenses. Allow me to revel in the ridiculousness that is Jackson's escapability and the 49ers' ferocious defensive front. Give me these chess-match masterminds, John Harbaugh and Kyle Shanahan, going toe-to-toe with everything on the line.

Nothing would be more delicious than this game on repeat.

Gray skies and sheets of rain served as the perfect backdrop for this epic clash of NFL titans — a wild, seesaw showdown where each score was quickly answered by the opposition. There was no doubt Jackson would do his best to snake his way through the outstretched arms of 49ers defenders. And given the pass-catchers at his disposal — George KittleEmmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel — there was no doubt that Jimmy Garoppolo (15 of 21 for 165 yards and one touchdown) would counter.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) looks up at the scoreboard during the second half of an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in Baltimore, Md. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

The 49ers came to Baltimore looking to build on last week's beatdown of the Green Bay Packers, while the Ravens, fresh off their own 39-point dismantling of the Rams, were eager to prove why they believe they'll be Super Bowl-bound. So it came as no surprise that this matchup would be tied at 17 late in the fourth quarter. 

But it wasn't the Jackson Show that we've come to expect (credit 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh for making enough adjustments to limit the ever-elusive quarterback to 206 yards total, passing and running). Instead, it was the ever-reliable Tucker who saved the day with a 49-yard field goal as time expired to give Baltimore a 20-17 victory and a 10-2 record.

"Nobody cares. Work harder."

Jackson took the podium sporting his signature T-shirt with those words emblazoned in white on the front. Despite his 101 yards and rushing touchdown on 16 carries, the quarterback was quick to lament his inaccuracy (14-of-23 passing for 105 yards and another TD). But he also spoke about his mentality each week.

"If you want to be the best, you've got to work hard at being the best," said Jackson, who lost his first fumble of the season when 49ers backup safety Marcell Harris made a heads-up play and stripped the ball from Jackson on what should have been another brilliant long run.

"If they're doubting you, work harder. It don't matter."

The 22-year-old and leading NFL MVP candidate didn't need to be the savior on Sunday. And, perhaps, that's an even more scary realization for opponents. Even when Jackson isn't at his best, Baltimore can beat you any number of ways. Similar in makeup to the 49ers, the Ravens are an aggressive, confident bunch that just won't quit. And it starts with their head coach.

Harbaugh chose to go for it on fourth down three different times — including a fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak late in the game. With the score tied. In Ravens' territory.

Unwavering belief and confidence in Jackson is at the heart of Baltimore’s impressive run this season. The organization's decision to go all-in on everything Jackson is — a gutsy playmaker who is a gifted passer and otherworldly as a runner — and to trust the youngster's instincts and field vision has made all the difference for the Ravens franchise.

And in the AFC North.

In a buoyant Baltimore locker room, Harbaugh quieted his players long enough to remind them of who they are — a humble, determined group that is focused on making the most of every opportunity for the sake of one another — and what is still left to be done.

"We're 10-2 and we ain't done nothing yet, right?!" shouted the coach, whose teamed chewed up the final minutes on the clock with a 12-play, 34-yard drive to set the stage for Tucker's game-winner.

Baltimore has now won eight straight games, its longest regular-season win streak. But should these two teams meet again in Miami in early February, make no mistake: The 49ers will have a new plan of attack to take down Jackson & Co. San Francisco is just too talented and too well-coached not to use this loss as a pivotal learning lesson.

"We had every chance to win that game," Shanahan said postgame. "Came up a little bit short there. … Give credit to them. Hopefully, we can earn the chance to play them again some other time."

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