The Ravens head west to take on the NFL's hottest team in must-win matchup for their playoff hopes
Saturday night’s matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and the Los Angeles Chargers could prove to be The Ghost of Football Yet to Come. With last week’s 20-12 win against Tampa Bay, the Ravens (8-6) are now in sole possession of the AFC's second wild-card spot, lurking a half-game behind the inconsistent Steelers in the AFC North with two games remaining. Baltimore has found new life in the second half of the season, having won four of its last five games with rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson running the show and running through defenses, replacing the injured, and likely soon-to-be-playing-elsewhere, Joe Flacco. While the Ravens are currently in the playoffs as of now, the final two weeks of the season are still must-win games as the Titans, Colts, and Dolphins are all jockeying for the AFC’s final playoff vacancy should Baltimore falter.
The Chargers (11-3) are one of five NFL teams, and one of only two AFC teams, that know they'll be playing football in January. That other AFC playoff team has a matching record and just so happens to be their long-time division rival, the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chargers not only locked up a playoff berth with that dramatic, last-minute win against those same Chiefs last Thursday night, but they also kept alive their chances of stealing the AFC West crown and ended a nine-game skid against their division nemesis. The win was the fourth in a row and the ninth in 10 games for Phillip Rivers & Co., ending any debate whether or not the Chargers were for real in 2018 and putting the Bolts in prime position for their first division title since '09.
Baltimore at Los Angeles
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 22 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: NFL Network
Spread: Chargers -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. All eyes on Lamar
When the Ravens took Lamar Jackson as the final pick in the first round of this year’s draft, the writing was on the wall for Joe Flacco — the former Super Bowl MVP's tenure as QB1 was on the clock. After Flacco suffered a hip injury against Pittsburgh last month, The Jackson Era officially began as the 2016 Heisman winner was named the Week 11 starter against the Bengals. What happened next not only changed the course of the Ravens’ season but perhaps the franchise for years to come.
Since Jackson became the starter, the Ravens have won four of their last five games and completely redesigned their offense. A season that once looked like it was ending at Jeff Fisher's annual New Year's Eve 8-8 Party and with a coaching change now may result in a playoff berth and a contract extension for John Harbaugh. Make no mistake, the Ravens' mid-season takeoff isn't due to Jackson's ability to throw. Frankly, they've won almost in spite of his throwing ability, as Jackson has completed just 58 percent of his attempts while averaging 146 passing yards per game with a 78.1 passer rating. Instead, it's Jackson’s uncanny and electric running style that has radically changed the Baltimore offense and propelled the Ravens into the playoff race.
It doesn't take an advanced scout to realize that Jackson eventually has to become a better thrower, improve his pocket presence, and for the love of Tiny Tim, learn how to slide. But give credit where it is due, to Harbaugh and his staff for playing to Jackson's strengths and allowing him to feel comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. And especially give props to Jackson, whom obviously has responded more than adequately when his team has needed him most, an unlikely trait for most rookie quarterbacks.
This week Jackson and the ground-heavy Baltimore offense face a Chargers defense that has kept opponents under 75 rushing yards in three of its last four games. It will be interesting to watch how Jackson handles the pressure of maintaining a playoff spot on the road and against the best defense he’s faced thus far with the Chargers' pass-rushing duo of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram attacking from the edge.
2. The ageless Philip Rivers
At age 37, Rivers is quarterbacking the hottest team in the league, and after last week's dramatic comeback win against Kansas City, he's putting himself in the conversation for NFL MVP. Long overlooked for a myriad of reasons — playing a majority of his career in a smaller, West Coast-based market and no Super Bowl rings or appearances — Rivers is cementing his legacy as a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback.
The 15-year vet is only 49 yards away from reaching his sixth straight and 10th career 4,000-yard passing season, a feat accomplished by only three other men: Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Peyton Manning. This season, Rivers is in the top 10 in every major passing category the league has to offer, including yards (3,951), touchdowns (31), passer rating (112.4), and QBR (75.50). And after leading his team back from a 14-point deficit, in less than four minutes, against the NFL's best team, and without the Chargers' leading rusher and receiver, he might have his MVP moment that voters can recall when ballots are due.
While the stats are obviously impressive, Rivers also is putting up numbers and leading his team to wins with an interesting and somewhat depleted cast of supporting characters in recent weeks. Melvin Gordon has been out for the last three games with a knee injury. Backup running back Austin Ekeler was out last week and will likely miss Saturday's game with a stinger and possible concussion, and leading receiver Keenan Allen was forced from last week's game early with a hip pointer.
With injuries to star players, Rivers has still been able to spread the wealth to the team’s role players, making the Chargers’ offense one of the most dangerous in the league. Mike Williams, the reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week, leads the team in touchdown catches (9) after posting just 11 receptions all of last year. Undrafted receiver Tyrell Williams, who’s been waived and cut by the Chargers twice, has morphed into a fantastic option for Rivers and is averaging more than 16 yards per catch. And future Canton resident, tight end Antonio Green, is somehow still able to run and catch passes (albeit really, really slowly) at age 38.
With Gordon and/or Allen potentially returning this week, the Chargers' offense will be full strength against a Ravens defense that ranks first in the league in points per game (18.1), yards per game (290.2) and yards per play (4.7) allowed. If Rivers can perform as he did last week against the best defensive unit in the league, he may not only close the gap on Patrick Mahomes for MVP but more importantly, close the gap on the division title.
3. Ravens' top-ranked D vs. Bolts' red-hot offense
When Rivers lines up under center on Saturday night, looking at him from across the line of scrimmage will be his former long-time teammate, safety Eric Weddle, now in his third season with the Ravens. Weddle is one of two Pro Bowl selections on the Ravens' vaunted defense along with middle linebacker C.J. Mosley. Weddle and Mosley lead the league’s best defensive unit, but the Ravens know they have plenty to worry about as the Chargers' balanced offensive attack has averaged 33 points per contest during their four-game win streak, even without do-everything running back Melvin Gordon in the lineup for most of it.
With Gordon expected to return this week, the Ravens not only have to worry about his running ability, but his potential to hurt them catching passes out of the backfield. Of Gordon's 197 touches this season, 44 have been receptions averaging more than 10 yards per clip to go with four touchdowns, giving Rivers yet another viable option in the passing game that he didn’t have last week against the Chiefs.
Where the Ravens may be able to expose the Chargers' offense is through their steady pass rush. Terrell Suggs, Matthew Judon, and Za'Darius Smith are all tied for the team lead with seven sacks apiece, and all three are able to create havoc by blitzing from multiple positions on the field. Rivers, who was sacked five times last week against Kansas City, has been great about protecting the football this season (8 INTs, 2 lost fumbles) and will look to continue that success against a Ravens defense that ironically ranks next to last (31st) in forcing turnovers. Look for defensive coordinator Don Martindale to dial up exotic blitz packages to force the Chargers into untenable third downs, where they rank in the middle of the pack and the Ravens thrive.
As cliche as it sounds, Saturday night really might feature an unstoppable force in the Chargers' offense meeting an immovable object in the Ravens' defense, opposing football units that may have reached the peak of their powers at the perfect time. Should make for a heck of a game for your holiday weekend, but don’t expect a shootout. If Lamar Jackson can protect the ball and keep the Ravens' defense fresh, it goes down to the wire — but give me the Bolts at home with Philip Rivers leading the way.
Prediction: Chargers 22, Ravens 18
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.