With 6:33 to play in the fourth quarter on Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers faced a fourth-and-one at the Baltimore Ravens’ 35-yard line.
San Francisco — with a chance to steal a road win against a fellow Super Bowl contender — had converted twice on fourth down already.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s dart to George Kittle was batted down at the line of scrimmage, giving the ball back to Baltimore. Quarterback Lamar Jackson — who proved once again to be one of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL — got the Ravens within field goal range, Justin Tucker banged home a 49-yard field goal and Baltimore dealt the 49ers their second loss of the season, 20-17 in what was considered by many to be a Super Bowl preview.
“We had every chance to win that game,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan. “Came up short in the end. Give credit to them. I didn’t mind the decision at all, not running. I just wish I called a better pass play.”
San Francisco (10-2) entered Sunday with a 50% conversion rate on fourth down, and on the first drive of the afternoon, demonstrated how bold and fearless they intended to be. On fourth-and-two from the Ravens’ 33, Shanahan dialed up a deep shot to wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who caught a 33-yard touchdown pass over Baltimore cornerback Marcus Peters to give the 49ers a 7-0 lead.
San Francisco’s lead wouldn’t last long, though. Garoppolo coughed the ball up while being sacked deep in the 49ers own territory on San Francisco’s next drive, and two plays later, Jackson — who finished the game with 105 passing yards — connected with tight end Mark Andrews for a 20-yard game-tying score.
Jackson — arguably the toughest test the 49ers’ vaunted defense has faced this season — was tough to contain, and San Francisco’s over-eagerness to tackle him resulted in two roughing the passer flags.
The first proved most costly, as Jackson turned what would have been a stop on third down into a one-yard touchdown rush four plays later to give Baltimore a 14-7 lead to begin the second quarter.
In soggy, windy conditions — similar to the 49ers’ Week 7 win over the Washington Redskins, minus the water-logged field — San Francisco was forced to rely heavily on its rushing attack.
Without running back Matt Breida (ankle) for the third-straight game, Shanahan put the ball in the hands of Raheem Mostert. With a knack for getting to the edge against a Ravens defense that stacked the box and brought interior pressure, Mostert thrived.
“I thought he was running great,” Shanahan said. “Once he got in there, we saw a few of the runs he made. He was pressing it very well. We just stuck with the hot hand after that.”
Finishing with a career-high 146 yards, Mostert evened the score at 14 with nine minutes to play in the second quarter on a 40-yard touchdown run, set up by a pair of crucial run blocks by right tackle Mike McGlinchey and tight end George Kittle.
After a Ravens field goal, San Francisco had an opportunity to tie the game at 17 just before the half, but due to an illegal block in the back penalty assessed on wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, the 49ers faced first-and-20 from their own 34-yard line.
Following a short pass to Samuel, Shanahan allowed nearly a full minute of game clock wind down, forcing San Francisco to attempt a 50-yard field goal.
Considering that kicker Robbie Gould had missed the last four games with a quad injury, kicking against the strong wind gusts with a soaking-wet ball was challenging at best, and he missed short and right, sending the 49ers into the locker room down by three.
“We’d love to score there but we’re going to work that clock,” Shanahan said. “When you’re short on the field goal, I wish we got closer … We wanted to eat the clock and that’s exactly what we did.”
Capitalizing on the deflating conclusion to San Francisco’s half-ending drive, the Ravens came out of the break marching 55 yards on five plays.
Jackson — who had 101 yards rushing to eclipse the 100-yard threshold for the fourth time this year — appeared to set Baltimore (10-2) up deep in 49ers territory with a 14-yard run down the left sideline, until the 49ers wound up with the ball.
Second-year safety Marcell Harriss, who entered the game four plays earlier for an injured Jaquiski Tartt (ribs), stripped Jackson as he fell to the ground, securing the ball in his chest as he laid on his back the 49ers 34-yard line.
San Francisco turned the play into a 32-yard field goal after, thanks to a drive-saving defensive pass interference call on fourth-and-one.
Shanahan elected to pass in the short-yardage situation, but as Garoppolo’s pass sailed above Sanders, Ravens corner Marlon Humphrey impeted Sanders’ path to the ball, triggering the penalty.
For the remainder of the third quarter and first half of the fourth, San Francisco’s defense cinched down on Jackson, forcing Baltimore to punt for the second time on the day and turn the ball over on downs after failing to convert on fourth down at San Francisco’s 40-yard line.
With the ball back and a chance to close the game out with a lengthy drive, San Francisco reached fourth-and-one on Baltimore’s 35.
Rather than handing the ball off to Mostert or running a quarterback sneak, Shanahan elected to throw — just like he did on each of the 49ers’ other two fourth down situations.
Garoppolo’s pass was tipped, falling to the ground, giving the ball right back to Jackson.
“They had tight coverage,” Garoppolo said. “The D-lineman got his hands on it. I thought we had a chance at George. Just a good play by the D-lineman.”
Baltimore appeared to learn from San Francisco’s mistakes, too, as it faced a fourth-and-one of its own near mid-field. Instead of passing, the Ravens relied on their MVP-frontrunner quarterback, who bulldozed ahead for the conversion.
With another pair of first downs, the Ravens set up a 49-yard kick from Tucker, who split the uprights. Coincidentally, both of San Francisco’s losses this year have now come courtesy of buzzer-beating field goals.
“We’re going to face adversity some time,” Garoppolo said. “I think guys responded well today. We just need to make more plays in crucial situations. That’s what separates a lot of these games: Just a couple of plays here and there.”