Best rivalry on NFL's 2011 sked? Try Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh

by | Senior Writer

There will be better games, and there may be better teams. But there is no better rivalry out there than what takes place Thanksgiving evening between Baltimore and San Francisco -- and that has nothing to do with the 49ers and Ravens and everything to do with the guys coaching them.

That would be Jim and John Harbaugh, and how perfect to have them meet on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Talk about a house divided against itself. This game shouldn't be played in Baltimore; it should be fought in Sharpsburg.

It will be the first time two brothers oppose each other as head coaches. I don't know much about Jim -- other than watching him play in college and the pros. But I know plenty about his brother. And what I know is that he doesn't like to lose.

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John Harbaugh is one of the toughest, most competitive and most tightly wound, Type-A creatures out there -- and if you don't believe me, talk to someone on the sidelines of the 2009 Pro Bowl. I did, and that person told me Harbaugh, the AFC head coach, was having a ball for three quarters -- until a line judge made a fourth-quarter call Harbaugh thought he blew.

So Harbaugh blew too -- like a gasket. The reason: It wound up costing him the lead in a 30-21 defeat.

So Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh is set for Thanksgiving night. That's when most families sit down to count their blessings. Only this family won't -- at least not for three hours. It's big brother vs. little brother, mano-a-mano, with each charged to annihilate the other, and if anyone should be thankful, it's the NFL Network. It televises the game ... er, family feud ... and has all that goes with it, including ratings.

"All I know is that when those two oppose each other," said former NFL officiating boss Mike Pereira, now a Fox analyst, "I'm glad I'm with Fox and not the NFL -- and you can quote me."

Jim takes over a San Francisco team that hasn't had a winning season since 2002, doesn't have a quarterback of consequence and travels nearly 3,000 miles to play in a hostile environment against one of the biggest, baddest football teams in the NFL -- the Baltimore Freakin' Ravens.

Let's just say he's at a disadvantage.

Baltimore was 7-1 at home last season, losing only to Pittsburgh, and is 19-5 there under Harbaugh -- John, that is -- the past three years. The Ravens reached the playoffs in each season under Harbaugh, and I don't know if they're as "loose" as former Ravens' linebacker Bart Scott alleges, and frankly, I don't care.

I just know they win. A lot.

Head coach John Harbaugh's Ravens own a 7-1 home record from last season, losing only to the Steelers. (Getty Images)  
Head coach John Harbaugh's Ravens own a 7-1 home record from last season, losing only to the Steelers. (Getty Images)  
But I also know that Jim Harbaugh in 2009 took a Stanford team that was a lopsided underdog into the L.A. Coliseum and did a number on USC -- hanging a 55-21 defeat on the Trojans, their worst home defeat since 1966. Of course, he had Andrew Luck then, and he's going to need more luck this time around to beat his big brother.

"We grew up in the same room, 16 years battling each other," John said at this year's NFL scouting combine. "[We] put a little tape across the middle of the room -- [saying] 'Hey, don't cross this line; don't cross to the other side.' [We'd] start a little fight sometimes, but not really that often. I think we get along really well."

They seem to, and that's great. I mean, Jim likes to talk about how much he relied on his brother and their dad, also a head coach, as he grew up and how John has given him "a lot of advice" over the years ... only not this year.

"We never coached together," Jim said. "We never worked together professionally. We played on some teams -- baseball teams, football teams -- growing up. Hockey teams. But at heart we've always been on the same team. At least, that's the way I feel about it. You know that's going to change -- at least [for] one week when the 49ers play the Baltimore Ravens. And it will be extremely competitive and a must-win type of the game for the San Francisco 49ers."

Notice how the affection for his brother morphed into the importance of winning? That's because winning isn't everything, it's the only ... anyway, you get the idea. I'm not sure which Harbaugh wants to win more, but I do know that if the 49ers lose, the only thing worse than bowing to Jim's brother will be the flight home.

Talk about six hours of turbulence.

"[I have] tremendous respect for him," John said, when someone asked what advice he has for his brother. "He doesn't need any advice. He's a proven head coach."

Which is another way of saying: If you're looking for help, Bro, knock on somebody else's door.

"I learned a lot of things from him," John said of Jim. "His competitiveness ... his relentlessness ... just who he is. It kind of rubs off over the years."

I get the idea. And so should you. All I know is that because of this Thanksgiving night, I'm finally grateful for the NFL schedule makers. I don't know if they gave us a game worth watching, but I know they gave us two brothers who will be.


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