Taking a closer look at the 49ers

With the Ravens set to play on Thursday, we’ll go ahead and push up the weekly look at the opponent. This week it’s the San Francisco 49ers.

Record: (9-1, first NFC West)

Wins: vs. Seattle, @ Cincinnati, @ Philadelphia, vs. Tampa Bay, @ Detroit, vs. Cleveland, @ Washington, vs. New York Giants, vs. Arizona

Losses: vs. Dallas

Offense: 20th in NFL, 12th in NFC

Defense: eighth in NFL, first in NFC

Synopsis thus far:
The league’s biggest surprise comes in the form of the 49ers, who have won eight straight games and have just one defeat on the season, an overtime loss to the Cowboys. First-year coach Jim Harbaugh has all but locked up Coach of the Year honors, particularly for his turnaround of quarterback Alex Smith. Smith was the first overall pick in 2005, but was considered a major bust until this season. Plenty of skeptics still aren’t sold on Smith, or the 49ers, but each week they come out on top. That’s mostly due to a defense that is top in the NFC, allowing just 323 yards per game. They have impressive wins over the Bengals, Giants and Lions, but the schedule stays tough down the stretch. It’s no question they’ll take their division, but this team won’t want to back their way into the playoffs.

Where they’re strong: On the ground, on the ground, on the ground. This team isn’t flashy, but at 9-1, it doesn’t really matter. Offensively, the maturation of Smith is thanks in large part to a running game that earns more than 130 yards a game. Running back Frank Gore has battled injuries, but will likely eclipse the 1,000-yard mark before Christmas. Backup Kendall Hunter is no slouch either, averaging 4.4 yards per carry so far, while the unit as a whole has lost just two fumbles all season. On the flip side of the ball, things don’t get any better. San Francisco is ranked first in the league against the run, giving up a stingy 73.9 yards per contest. The inside linebacker duo of Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis is the best in football and part of a defense that has forced 17 turnovers, five better than the next best team, Green Bay.

Where they’re weak: For as strong as this team is on the ground, it’s equally suspect in the air. For Smith, he’s on pace for nearly 3,000 yards and has thrown just four interceptions, but with Gore chalking up yards and the offense usually in position to run down the clock, Smith hasn’t been asked to do too much, especially late in games. That’s not to say he can’t, given the opportunity, but if the running game is stopped in one of these games, it’ll give people a much better idea of just how much Smith has progressed. Against the pass the 49ers aren’t much better. They rank 23rd in the league allowing 249 yards per game, despite causing 15 interceptions. If an opponent is accurate, he can have a field day against this defense.

Overall advantage: This is such a juicy matchup (see what I did there?) We’ve got one team fighting for a fiercely competitive division, the other simply trying to wrap up their division, two head coaches who, in addition to being among the best in the league, are also brothers. We’ve got an eight-game winning streak by one, a seven-game home winning streak by the other, all on center stage Thanksgiving night. Food, family and football. It doesn’t get much better than this Thursday. As for the game, I’m interested to see how Smith responds to the Ravens pressure, but without Ray Lewis, who could miss his second straight game with a toe injury, that gives the 49ers the edge in playmakers on the field and, I think, the road win.