The 49ers didn't quite get what they came for Thursday night, but the trip east wasn't a complete loss.

Their goal was to beat the Baltimore Ravens, improve to 10-1 and move one step closer to their first goal: clinching the NFC West title.

Instead, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has to settle for knowing that the criticism he uses as fuel to keep his players motivated and focused will be in greater abundance than in recent weeks.

Harbaugh, no doubt, would have preferred a victory over a Ravens team coached by his older brother, John.

Who knows, a win might have played a key role in the 49ers catching and, ultimately, overtaking the Green Bay Packers for the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.

In the end, the loss to the Ravens just might wind up helping Harbaugh's cause more than a victory, given that the 49ers already hold a lead in the race for the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs and the undefeated Packers don't show any signs of slowing down.

Harbaugh made it clear that he feels uncomfortable having his team lavished with praise.

Imagine how many "flowery things" -- his characterization of post-victory stories from earlier this year -- would have surfaced with a 49ers victory over the Ravens.

It's one thing beating the New York Giants in an NFC showdown, with the media from the nation's largest market paying rapt attention, as the 49ers did Nov. 13.


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It's quite another beating a Ravens team that was tied for the best record in the AFC, entered Thursday's game 5-0 at home and boasts of the more-experienced Harbaugh calling the shots.

Not to mention, the 49ers played in a prime-time game for the first time this season, as the featured game of a Thanksgiving Day tripleheader, and in a game that had added interest because of the brothers coaching against each other.

The 49ers almost pulled it off. Some might say the game changed on two plays, and it would be difficult to argue. Both went in the Ravens' favor.

An apparent 75-yard touchdown from 49ers quarterback Alex Smith to wide receiver Ted Ginn was negated by an illegal block. Later, an interception by 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown of Joe Flacco's deep pass was wiped out by a pass-interference penalty called on Brown.

Who's got it better than the 49ers? Well, for now, at least, the Ravens, thanks to the 16-6 victory.

But you can bet that Jim Harbaugh is going to squeeze just as much out of this loss as his brother is going to out of the win.

The criticism of the 49ers these days is far less than it was, say, during training camp or even after the overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sept. 18.

Yet, it has been there all season, and Harbaugh has counted on it every week.

All season, Harbaugh has told his players that the longer it takes them to figure out how good they are, the better off they will be.

The 49ers surely will doubt themselves a tad in light of getting beaten by a team that matched their physical style.

Then there's the media aspect. Time and again, the media have helped Harbaugh in his never-ending quest to keep his players hungry, motivated and focused.

Harbaugh found plenty of things to latch onto, take to his assistant coaches and make sure they got disseminated in the locker room.

It always was something. The 49ers weren't beating quality opponents, they couldn't win a shootout. Or there was no way a first-year coach, without benefit of an offseason, could succeed.

A season-opening victory over the defending NFC West champion Seattle Seahawks was met with a shrug based on the Seahawks' 7-9 record in 2010.

Back-to-back road victories against the Cincinnati Bengals and the Philadelphia Eagles turned some heads, but they weren't enough to register much on the national scale.

The 49ers followed a 48-3 thrashing of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a 25-19 victory over the 5-0 Detroit Lions on the road, generating some momentum. And beating the Giants silenced a lot of critics. Now people will be watching to see how Harbaugh and his players handle a loss for the first time in more than two months.

Better than most, if history is our guide.