By Norm Elrod
(CBSLA/CBS Local) — Had the Los Angeles Chargers beat the Baltimore Ravens in Week 16, they might just have won the AFC West and earned a first-round bye. The Ravens, for their part, would probably be a week into their off-season, after losing the AFC North to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But with just under three minutes left, as Philip Rivers attempted to lead his Chargers back from six points down, Antonio Gates fumbled. Tavon Young returned it for a touchdown to give the Ravens the win.
So the Chargers, despite keeping pace with the high-flying Kansas City Chiefs, find themselves as a 12-4 wildcard team. The Ravens overtook the fading Steelers to win their division with a 10-6 record and secure home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
The Chargers now have to travel to Baltimore for this weekend’s rematch in the wildcard round. That’s fine. They’ve done well on the road this season, beating quality teams in hostile environments, and don’t enjoy much of a home-field advantage anyway. Further, with temperate conditions expected in Baltimore Sunday afternoon, weather won’t be a factor for the visitors from Los Angeles.
The NFL’s leading defense, however, will be very much a factor. The Ravens defense shut down the Chargers two weeks ago, limiting Philip Rivers to just 181 yards passing and no touchdowns, and Melvin Gordon to just 12 carries for 41 yards and one touchdown. As mentioned before, they came up with the big play when it mattered.
The unit is stout across the front line, containing the run and pressuring the quarterback without a lot of additional bodies. The defensive backfield has proved capable of shutting down big-play receivers, including Keenan Allen in Week 16. And linebacker Terrell Suggs, even at 36 years old, remains a force all over the field. Can they limit the Chargers again this week?
Philip Rivers had a bit of an off-game the last time around, at least by his standards. It was quite possibly his worst game of the season, and the only time all season that he failed to throw a TD pass. The likely Hall of Famer, coming off one of his best years (32 TDs, 269.3 passing yards per game), with the clock ticking on his dreams of Super Bowl stardom, will be better this time out. And so will the offensive weapons around him. While the Chargers certainly won’t light up the Ravens, expect better production across the board, especially if the Chargers’ offensive line can fend off the Ravens’ pass rush.
The Ravens offense will once again rely on Lamar Jackson, who has now won six of seven as a starter. The rookie’s passing numbers aren’t impressive; he has yet to complete 15 passes in a game and has only topped 200 yards once. But his real threat comes from the run and how that sets up other runners in the gimmicky stripped-down package they’ve featured through the second half of the season.
One of Jackson’s best passing days so far came against the Chargers in Week 16, when he went a still unimpressive 12-22 for 204 yards and a touchdown. His 39 yards on the ground also make it his worst rushing day of his last seven starts.
The Chargers defense didn’t solve the Ravens run-heavy offense, but they did a decent job containing it. More to the point, they did enough to give their offense a chance to win at the end. And this time around the Chargers defense has a game’s worth of experience facing the Ravens attack. They’re certainly capable of containing the run.
This will likely be another close and low-scoring game; look no further than the three-point spread and the 42-point over/under. These numbers aside, the Chargers are a better team than the Ravens. They have been all season. And Philip Rivers is certainly a more dangerous quarterback than Lamar Jackson. It seems way more likely that Rivers will bounce back than it does that Jackson will continue his streak.
The Ravens defense will apply pressure, but the experienced Rivers will get rid of the ball more quickly and find the end zone. The rookie Jackson may break off a highlight run, but the Chargers defense, having already contained him once, will limit him again. Jackson won’t be able to lead his offense from the pocket. And the Ravens defense, while formidable, can’t be relied on to put points on the board. Look for the Chargers to beat the Ravens by a touchdown.
As SportsLine analyst Mike Tierney sees it…
You will rarely find a No. 5 seed so talented as to be a legit Super Bowl threat. While Baltimore rookie QB Lamar Jackson has kick-started his offense, he pales in comparison to Chargers veteran Philip Rivers, whose only lousy game this season occurred against . . . the Ravens. Won’t happen again. Rivers’ arsenal of receivers might include gifted TE Hunter Henry (ACL), who has rehabbed all season. The Chargers are unbeaten straight-up in eight games outside of SoCal, and Rivers has pulled off three road wins in the playoffs. The Ravens are on a 1-5 ATS skid at home, but L.A. can take this one straight-up.