NFL playoff action will kick off on Sunday with the Los Angeles Chargers making the long trip east to face the Baltimore Ravens in the second AFC Wild Card game. A matchup that features two teams that should be very familiar with one another, considering their last meeting took place just a couple of weeks ago. Both teams entered that crucial Week 16 game in need of a win to stay alive in closely-contested division races. Baltimore left Los Angeles with a 22-10 victory over the Chargers, although it was closer than the score suggests.
The Ravens (10-6) would follow up with another crucial win last week, narrowly escaping disaster in a dramatic 26-24 affair against the Browns to close out the regular season with their first AFC North title since 2012 and the No. 4 seed in the AFC playoffs. It also marked Baltimore’s third consecutive win and its sixth in the last seven games behind rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson and the league’s best defense. The Ravens now face yet another difficult challenge to keep its season alive — beating the Chargers for a second time. If successful, Baltimore would extend its record to 6-0 in Wild Card games under head coach John Harbaugh.
While the Chargers (12-4) ultimately fell short of winning the AFC West, thanks in part to that loss to the Ravens, the Bolts did manage to wrap up the regular season with a 23-9 victory over the Broncos to tie for the best record in the AFC. The win in Denver also gave the Chargers a 7-0 record in games played outside of the greater Los Angeles area (they lost to the Rams in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Week 3). That bodes well for the fifth seed although Baltimore is 6-2 at home thus far. Regardless of the record, Los Angeles will need to be at its very best to get past the red-hot Ravens on Sunday afternoon.
AFC Wild Card Playoff: Los Angeles at Baltimore
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 6 at 1:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Ravens -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Los Angeles' passing game vs. Baltimore's pass defense
Chargers’ quarterback Philip Rivers matched his career high for passer rating (105.5) during a standout regular season. That effort was aided by a trio of top-flight wide receivers in Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Tyrell Williams. The Los Angeles offensive line did its part as well, allowing a respectable 34 sacks in 16 games. All in all, it was a remarkable showing for one of the NFL’s most prolific passing attacks.
However, there is one game that Rivers and company would like to forget. The Week 16 loss to the Ravens was the only game all season in which Rivers failed to throw a touchdown pass. He did, however, throw two interceptions en route to his lowest passer rating (51.7) of the season. The Chargers’ talented receiving corps didn’t fare much better, struggling to gain separation against an equally talented Baltimore secondary. And the Los Angeles offensive line was, for the most part, overwhelmed and outmatched against a stellar Baltimore pass rush — surrendering four sacks, eight QB hits and allowing consistent pressure on Rivers. The Chargers will need a much-improved effort to find success in Sunday’s rematch, particularly when it comes to pass protection. That won’t come easy against the NFL's No. 1 defense.
2. Lamar Jackson
The Ravens’ rookie will make NFL history this weekend, becoming the youngest quarterback to start a playoff game at age 21. Jackson was a major catalyst behind Baltimore’s successful run to the AFC North title, leading the Ravens to a 6-1 record down the stretch after replacing Joe Flacco as the starter. The dynamic playmaker will look to keep things rolling in his first-ever playoff start, but to do so he'll have to tackle another first — face the same defense for a second time.
Jackson threw for a season-high 204 yards and a touchdown in the Week 16 win over Los Angeles. However, a big chunk of that came on one play, a 68-yard touchdown strike to tight end Mark Andrews. Otherwise, the Chargers did an outstanding job of limiting the dual-threat quarterback where he shines brightest — running the football. Jackson managed just 39 rushing yards on 13 carries, by far his lowest total in his starts. He also was sacked three times. Jackson is sure to be the focal point of the Bolts’ defense again on Sunday. The question is, can the Chargers contain the elusive quarterback for a second time? Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and the rest of the defense have that exact goal in mind. It should make for a compelling matchup.
3. A potent Baltimore ground attack
The Chargers may have been successful in limiting Jackson as a runner, but the Ravens still finished with 159 rushing yards in that Week 16 win. Fellow rookie Gus Edwards led the way with 92 yards on 14 carries (6.6 ypc) as Baltimore showed it's more than just Jackson who can get the job done on the ground. In fact, the Ravens enter this game second in the NFL in rushing at 152.6 yards per game. But that number has ballooned to 229.5 over the last seven contests or all the games Jackson started. So while Los Angeles can take some solace in that it "limited" Baltimore's total damage on the ground in the first meeting that task will be just as difficult the second time, especially if Jackson is able to get loose a time or two. The Chargers will need to make sure their ninth-ranked rushing defense (105.8 ypg) plays up to its potential.
It’s never easy to beat an NFL team twice in the same season, a task made more difficult for the Ravens against a Chargers squad that has thrived on the road. Los Angeles is also one of the most complete teams in the league, excelling on both sides of the football. And that is exactly what the Chargers will need to do on Sunday to pull off the upset — excel on both sides of the football. This is something they failed to do in the 22-10 home loss to Baltimore in Week 16. The Ravens held Los Angeles to a season-low 198 total yards, effectively shutting down both Philip Rivers and Melvin Gordon, who was coming back from a three-game absence due to a knee injury. That game also marked the only time that the Chargers failed to score at least 20 points. Expect Los Angeles to put up more points this time around, but it won’t be enough to come away with the win. Baltimore's defense is simply too strong, particularly in the trenches, and the Ravens have the benefit of home-field advantage.
Prediction: Ravens 23, Chargers 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.