Never have the Baltimore Ravens found themselves in this position so late in the season, with every goal firmly in their grasps as they travel to San Diego on Sunday night.
Waiting for them is a Chargers team suddenly roused from a mid-season stroke with two straight wins that followed a frustrating six-game losing streak that erased a 4-1 start and placed them on the outside looking in at the playoff picture. However faint their playoff hopes might be — the Broncos-Patriots outcome earlier in the day will either be a nail in the coffin or a ray of hope — San Diego is suddenly revitalized in welcoming the Ravens to town for Sunday Night Football.
A win puts the Ravens in the playoffs for the fourth straight year and shortens the path to the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye. A loss places Baltimore in a familiar position: needing help to gain the ideal postseason position.
Sunday marks the eighth all-time meeting between the AFC teams, with the Ravens holding a 4-3 edge in the series. Baltimore is 2-3 playing the Chargers in San Diego. The last time these teams faced in 2009, it took a last-second tackle of Darren Sproles by Ray Lewis to preserve a 31-26 victory for the Ravens in a game in which Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers threw for a then-career-high 436 yards.
Here’s what to expect when the Ravens take the field at the temporarily-named Snapdragon Stadium on Sunday night …
1. Terrell Suggs will pick up two sacks, but the Ravens will have difficulty finding the right combination of pressure against the San Diego passing game. The 29-year-old linebacker has been a one-man wrecking crew since Lewis went down with a toe injury, collecting seven sacks in his last three games. While former Ravens tackle Jared Gaither has done a fine job at left tackle since the Chargers signed him two weeks ago to replace the injured Marcus McNeill, it’s hard to envision him or right tackle Jeromey Clary containing Suggs. However, the Chargers’ ability to go vertical in the passing game while using tight end Antonio Gates and running backs Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert underneath creates a dilemma. Sending extra defenders will leave the Ravens vulnerable to Rivers dumping the ball off to releasing backs, but playing it conservatively puts a lot on the front four to create enough pressure to disrupt the San Diego quarterback’s timing with receivers down the field. Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano considers it a major challenge and compared the Chargers offense to the Ravens in how they like to use their running backs in the passing game. Everyone knows Gates is a future Hall of Fame talent, but Mathews and Tolbert have combined for 90 receptions this season, which might make Baltimore think twice before simply pinning its ears back against a San Diego offensive line that seems to have stabilized in recent weeks.
2. With Lardarius Webb unlikely to play, Chargers receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd will get the best of Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams. The timing could not have been worse for Webb to suffer a turf toe injury with the Ravens facing the most challenging passing offense they’ve seen since Pittsburgh on Nov. 6. Though the 5-foot-10 Webb is at a size disadvantage going up against either of San Diego’s 6-foot-5 receivers, he’s played at a Pro Bowl level all season and will be replaced by the highly-talented, but still largely unknown commodity, Jimmy Smith. The rookie has looked terrific at times, intercepting two passes, and lost at others, allowing touchdown passes against Cincinnati and Cleveland. His 6-foot-2 frame was drafted exactly for these types of games, but Smith’s preference to be physical will be tested — and watched by officials ready to throw yellow flags — in the most extensive work he’ll receive all season. Williams has been very solid this season, but he’s struggled on the rare occasions when the defense has been unable to generate enough heat on the quarterback. At 6-foot-1, Williams has the height to hold his own against tall receivers, but it’s questionable whether he possesses enough strength to match up against Jackson or Floyd. Jackson has caught eight touchdowns this season, and he’ll earn his ninth on Sunday night.