The San Francisco 49ers step onto the national stage Thursday, which means it's time to consider five things to watch in the most highly-anticipated game of the season for an NFC West team to this point:
Special teams must bounce back. The 49ers' victory over the Arizona Cardinals last week looked good from afar, but this was easily the worst special-teams performance of the season for San Francsico. David Akers had two field-goal tries blocked. Akers missed another attempt. The 49ers incurred three penalties on their punt-coverage team. Ted Ginn Jr. averaged four yards per punt return and 21 yards per kickoff return, pedestrian numbers. All this came one week after coach Jim Harbaugh pointed to 49ers special-teams coach Brad Seely as a head-coaching candidate. Harbaugh's brother, John, became the Baltimore Ravens' head coach after making a name for himself coaching special teams. Seely will be looking for a bounce-back effort from his unit this week.
49ers left tackle Joe Staley vs. Terrell Suggs. Suggs has gone three games in a row without a sack for the first time since the 2009 season. Staley has been solid for the 49ers. Durability has been a concern for him the last two seasons, however. He made nine starts in 2009 and nine last season, suffering injuries both seasons. Staley has made all 10 starts this season. He now faces a tough matchup on a short week. I'll be watching to see how he fares and how well he holds up physically.
Patrick Willis on a national stage. The 49ers are playing in Ray Lewis' house. It'll be fitting, in a way, if Lewis' injury situation prevents him from playing. Willis, more than any other inside linebacker, appears positioned to pick up where Lewis eventually leaves off. Lewis has said so. The 49ers haven't gotten to play in many prime-time games since Willis arrived as a first-round pick in 2007. This stage provides an opportunity for Willis to show the nation what he's shown 49ers fans for years, that he's the best inside linebacker around.
Big hits from the safeties. Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson have been big hitters for the 49ers all season. The Ravens' Ed Reed continues to set a high standard for the position overall. The 49ers need continued feisty play from Whitner and Goldson, plus heightened awareness from them when the Ravens look for receiver Torrey Smith on deep passes.
The postgame handshake. The Harbaugh-against-Harbaugh storyline has already gotten tiring. The matchups on the field are so much more compelling, at least in my view. Still, I'll be interested in seeing the dynamic after the game given the overall competitiveness of the two. This would be an emotional game even without the sibling rivalry element. The sight of Jim Harbaugh untucking his shirt and dancing around the Ravens' field is one John Harbaugh surely wants to avoid.