Wild-card breakdown: Los Angeles Chargers at Baltimore Ravens
When the Chargers have the ball: Philip Rivers had a banner season at age 37 with a 32-12 TD-INT ratio, 4,308 pass yards and 68.3 percent completions. He’s done it with Hunter Henry, Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler all missing time, too, although Henry (knee) could return from injured reserve and give them another weapon after he missed the entire regular season.
Still, the Ravens really clamped down on Rivers and the Chargers in Week 16, picking him off twice, sacking him four times and limiting him to 4.9 yards per attempt.
Rivers threw only three interceptions in his first eight starts (on 246 attempts) but had nine picks (on 262 attempts) in the final eight starts, including two INTs each in the past three games. Mike Williams has stepped up, Allen and Gordon appear healthy and the Hunter-Gates duo could provide fruit.
But the Ravens also have cranked up the volume on their defense down the stretch. Good all year in terms of limiting opponents’ yards, Baltimore now has gotten back to its 2017 form in terms of forcing turnovers. After forcing only seven in the first 10 games, this defense has created 10 in their final six games.
When the Ravens have the ball: Lamar Jackson, the youngest QB to start a playoff game, has changed the landscape of the offense. Credit due to offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who incorporated elements of the Michael Vick 2010 offense (which Mornhinweg also helped craft) as well as designed QB runs (read-option, power read, et al) to make this one of the tougher units to defend now.
Granted, the Chargers have an edge. They just saw this scheme two weeks ago when the Ravens went into L.A. and ground out a win and can better clean up their run fits and prepare assignments. The Ravens had scoring chances on seven of their first eight possessions but only took advantage on four of those (two missed field goals, turnover on downs). The Chargers also tightened up considerably in the third and fourth quarters, forcing three straight three-and-outs, as Baltimore tried to protect a lead.
The Ravens don’t use a fancy passing attack, keeping many throws safe in the short and intermediate parts of the field. But they force you to stop the power running of undrafted rookie Gus Edwards (122-654-2 rushing since Week 11), make you account for Jackson as a runner (119-556-4 in seven starts) and force you to respect the occasional downfield shot.
The Chargers’ defensive playmakers — and they have quite a few — can take advantage of Jackson’s occasionally sloppy ball handling (10 fumbles, three picks since replacing Joe Flacco).
Special teams: Ravens kicker Justin Tucker is one of the best, making 35-of-39 FG tries this season, although two of those misses game in the 22-10 win at the Chargers. His counterpart, punter Sam Koch, also is excellent, with great hangtime, distance and placement. The Chargers’ special teams are weaker, although Michael Badgley has improved the kicking and returner Desmond King is very dangerous.
Coaching: John Harbaugh is entering his 16th playoff game, and he has a sterling record of 10-5, plus a Super Bowl victory. Is this his final run with the Ravens? Even with a vote of confidence, there’s evidence he and the team could part ways whenever the Ravens’ playoff run ends. Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn has won nearly 64 percent of his games in two seasons despite having little home-field advantage.
Prediction: The Chargers are 8-0 away from home this season with tough victories over the Steelers, Chiefs, Seahawks and (technically a home game in London) Titans. They’ll have a talent and experience edge on the Ravens at a few spots, but this will be no easy challenge. Baltimore is 6-2 at home with narrow losses to the Saints (one point) and Steelers (seven), winning four straight there. In the end, the Ravens’ peaking defense and the Chargers’ increased propensity for turnovers will be the difference.
Ravens 24, Chargers 21