Thanksgiving football has numerous traditions that have come and gone over the years. The Lions are a Thanksgiving regular, John Madden annually handed out pieces of his Turducken, Phil Simms has his All-Iron team, and the folks on FOX have their Galloping Gobbler.
Thanksgiving Day 2011 features something completely original when the Baltimore Ravens host the San Francisco 49ers. For the first time in NFL history, two brothers will face each other as NFL head coaches. Players and fans often call the NFL the No Fun League, but this matchup proves somebody in the NFL has a sense of humor. A brotherly matchup would do great ratings for any week, but add it on a family holiday like Thanksgiving and it's absolute gold.
Although the hype has only gone into overdrive over the last few days, HBO got things going in their 2011 Real Sports Premier. The show ran a feature on the Harbaugh family, following them on a trip to Gettysburg. Apparently Real Sports' producers thought Martin Scorsese needed competition in hammering home obvious symbolism (ed note: violence).
As this week has progressed, both brothers have made it very clear that this game is all business. While the brotherly matchup is the great "story" of the week, the real value of this game is in the playoff battle. Both teams are in the thick of different playoff races. The Ravens are 7-3 and tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC North lead. The 49ers are 9-1 and running away with the NFC West, but battling for playoff positioning with the Green Bay Packers.
It is way too easy to focus entirely on the fascinating brotherly matchup. Even without the brothers' storyline, this is a great matchup of two of the best defenses in the NFL. Styles make matchups and while this is not expected to be a Wild West shootout, the strong defensive and rushing schemes could make for an intense and exciting matchup.
And this is where Harbaugh versus Harbaugh actually comes into the picture. The Civil War-style setup is great for selling newspapers and getting page views, but it has no bearing on the outcome of this huge matchup. With both teams in the thick of the playoff race, every win is key and the familial relationship goes by the wayside if it gets in the way of defeating the opposition.
The two head coaches do a great job motivating their teams, but they have also done a great job of surrounding themselves with incredibly talented coaching staffs. John Harbaugh brought in Cam Cameron and Chuck Pagano who each have 28 years of coaching experience. Jim Harbaugh brought Vic Fangio and Greg Roman from Stanford and added in veteran coaches like Brad Seely and Jim Leavitt. Both Harbaugh's are competitive and want to be the best, but they have recognized the importance of surrounding themselves with excellent staffs.
These two men will be looking to one-up each other in their Thanksgiving matchup, but in reality they are quite similar. They have brought in some incredibly coaches have the support of strong football operations departments. The similarities are even more nuanced when you look at things like the blue work shirts both brothers have handed out to their players. John did it early in his time with the Ravens and Jim has done the same thing in his first year with the 49ers.
Both chances will be able to revert to their familial relationship once the game is over. Jim Harbaugh has admitted to rooting for the Ravens, particularly when they have been beating up on some of the 49ers NFC West brethren. They can be friends the rest of the year, but for three hours on Thanksgiving, it is no holds barred.
I suppose it might not be "the rest of the year." There remains the chance of HarBowl 2: Super Bowl Edition. It is a long ways off and there are numerous hurdles until then, but can you imagine the hype for a Super Bowl matchup of brothers? It will make this week look like the buildup to a preseason game.