Ravens (10-3) @ Chargers (6-7)
A trip to visit a 6-7 team shouldn’t make a fan base this uneasy, especially one of a team that has rolled off four consecutive wins to position itself on the inside track for the #1 playoff seed in the conference. Even if the Ravens hadn’t already went on the road and laid eggs against such scrubs as Seattle and (ugh) Jacksonville, this trip to San Diego would still feel quite dangerous.
For starters, the Chargers always give the Ravens fits. In recent memory, it’s taken either a great play late in the game to hold them off (2006, 2009), or they’ve just completely trounced us (2007). Add to that the fact that they’re a ridiculous 19-2 under head coach Norv Turner in December, AND that they’ve won their last two games by a combined score of 75-24, and…yeah. This isn’t going to be easy.
Leading up to consecutive 38-14 and 37-10 thrashings of Jacksonville and Buffalo, respectively, in the last couple weeks, San Diego had lost six in a row to pretty much doom their season. They’re still hanging on by a thread though, and with some help, could still sneak into the playoffs. They know they have to win out though, and unfortunately it looks like the Ravens are catching them at pretty much the worst possible time.
Quarterback Philip Rivers is second in the NFL with 17 interceptions – that’s the good news. The bad news is that he hasn’t thrown a single pick in his last three games, while throwing seven touchdowns over that same span. If Rivers is on, and gets in a rhythm, I’m not sure the Ravens have the offensive firepower to win a shootout. The Baltimore defense will have to keep this to a mid-twenties type game at the highest for the Ravens to have a shot. After facing the JV offenses of Cleveland and Indianapolis the past two weeks (and, to a lesser extent, San Francisco before that), let’s hope they remember what it’s like to play an actual NFL quarterback with weapons.
And man, does Rivers have some weapons. Wide receiver Vincent Jackson leads the team with 53 receptions for 952 yards and 8 touchdowns. Tight end Antonio Gates also has 53 catches, while Malcolm Floyd (who shunned Baltimore last offseason) is averaging 21.5 yards per catch. The Lardarius Webb toe injury could loom large Sunday night. If Webb is unable to go, rookie Jimmy Smith and Chris Carr will see increased playing time. While Smith has all the physical tools to match up against the San Diego receivers, he is still raw and prone to the mistakes that any young player is; he’ll have his work cut out for him. Carr, while a smart player who knows the Ravens’ scheme like the back of his hand, at 5’10″ just doesn’t match up in stature with San Diego’s 6’5″ tandem. Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said this week that it’s like watching the Los Angeles Lakers take the field when San Diego comes out of the tunnel, they have so much size. Safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard will be counted on to help prevent the big play, but you have to like San Diego’s chances on pretty much any “jump ball” situation.
So how do you help an overmatched secondary? By getting to the quarterback, of course. Fortunately for the Ravens, that’s been their specialty here in 2011, as they lead the NFL in sacks with 45. Rivers is a guy that doesn’t like to get hit, and he isn’t nearly as mobile as say, that big dummy in Pittsburgh. He’s been sacked 30 times, but only five of those have come over the past four weeks. Former Raven Jared Gaither has stepped in the last two games and played surprisingly well, and Terrell Suggs will have to have some success against the guy he used to go up against in practice if he wants to continue his defensive-MVP campaign, while also having a hand in helping his team bring back a win from the west coast. Cory Redding, Haloti Ngata, Paul Kruger, Pernell McPhee, and Jarret Johnson will all have to chip in to make Rivers’ life miserable Sunday night.
On the other side, San Diego has managed only 22 sacks of their own, and it’s another former Raven leading the way there – Antwan Barnes has seven of those 22. Baltimore’s offensive line has stepped up as well, allowing only five sacks of Joe Flacco over the past five games, while also paving the way for some of the running game’s best performances of the season. San Diego is vulnerable on the ground, giving up over 128 yards per game (good for 24th in the league). They also struggle mightily on 3rd downs, allowing opponents to convert on 45.9% of tries (31st). If Ray Rice and Ricky Williams can consistently move the ball on the ground and set up third and short situations (though, not TOO short, as we’ve seen lately), and Flacco can hit his tight ends and backs to move the chains, it will go a long way to keeping Rivers and his group of power forwards playing wideout on the sidelines.
While Webb will likely be out of the lineup, the Ravens should get another key piece back when Ray Lewis takes the field for the first time since the Cincinnati win. The team was 4-0 without him, but this is a great time to be getting him back; San Diego knows all too well about Lewis’s ability to diagnose personnel groups and formations pre-snap, and knowing what Rivers plans on doing before he does it could again prove the difference.
The old cliche in the NFL is when you go on the road late in the season, you pack your defense and your running game. While the weather in San Diego isn’t exactly what whoever first said that had in mind, it still holds true. In those aforementioned losses to Seattle and Jacksonville, the Ravens brought their defense but forgot about Ray Rice. Getting #27 on track against one of the poorer run defenses in the league will be the key if the Ravens want to stay in the AFC drivers’ seat.
There is just too much on the line for the Ravens to not put their best effort forward Sunday night. If they lose to San Diego, they revert to scoreboard-watching; not just Monday night when Pittsburgh travels to San Francisco (without James Harrison and HOPEFULLY without Baby Ben), but also if New England and Houston can dispose of Denver and Carolina, respectively, earlier in the day. That would put them a game behind the Patriots and Texans even if the Steelers were to fall to 10-4 as well.
Things just get too messy and complicated with a Ravens loss. Let’s keep things squeaky clean and crystal clear by getting out of SoCal with a victory.
Ravens 24 Chargers 23