OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It didn’t happen in the blink of an eye, but there was no sugarcoating the Ravens’ humbling 34-14 defeat to quarterback Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers last December.
The prime-time thrashing not only handed Baltimore its fourth and final loss of the regular season, but it stripped the Ravens of their grip on the No. 1 seed in the AFC. They won their final two games of the regular season but finished a game behind New England, which resulted in the Ravens traveling to Gillette Stadium for the AFC Championship instead of the Patriots potentially coming to Baltimore for a championship showdown.
We know what happened after that, and you can’t help but wonder how events might have played out differently had the Ravens not been on the losing end of that contest against Rivers and the erratic Chargers, who enter Sunday’s meeting with a 4-6 record and their playoff hopes on life support.
“Last year, it wasn’t that pleasant,” linebacker Terrel Suggs said. “Before I could look up, it was 31-7. It was like raining touchdowns out there. He’s a good quarterback. We definitely can’t make it a seven-on-seven contest.”
The Chargers have looked just plain bad more than erratic this season as Rivers has thrown a league-high 14 interceptions to go along with 2,461 yards and 17 touchdowns. San Diego has two wins since Week 2 — both coming against the doormat Kansas City Chiefs — but a victory over the Ravens could be viewed as a long-shot to change the season for Norv Turner, who appears on his way out as Chargers coach.
The Ravens have been down this road before in preparing for San Diego. Their margin for error is slim as they continue to chase the 10-1 Houston Texans for the AFC’s top spot while trying to hold off New England and Denver, who both trail Baltimore by one game in the loss column of the conference standings.
Unlike last season’s San Diego game when the Ravens’ path to the No. 1 seed was completely in their hands, Baltimore still needs help, but a loss on Sunday would be a major blow to their hopes for home-field advantage throughout January. A measure of revenge might be healthy for the Ravens’ psyche as well as they travel to San Diego for the third time in the last four seasons.
“[I am] thankful for another opportunity to go against Philip after he sliced us and diced us last year,” coach John Harbaugh said. “It will be a big challenge. He’s a great player. Between the quarterback and their receivers, they’re maybe the most talented passing group in the league.”
That talent hasn’t translated to success on the field as the Chargers lost former No. 1 receiver Vincent Jackson in free agency this past March and currently rank 23rd in total offense, 17th in passing offense, and 16th in points per game.
Despite his struggles with taking care of the football this season, Rivers’ talents aren’t lost on the Ravens as he still has two dangerous targets in tight end Antonio Gates and tall wide receiver Malcom Floyd, who burned the Baltimore defense to the tune of five catches for 96 yards and a touchdown last season. This, coupled with a secondary depleted by injuries, has Harbaugh and the Ravens looking beyond the underwhelming statistics.
“You look at what they are capable of accomplishing,” Harbaugh said. “For the most part, it has been turnovers on offense for them. I’m sure they feel if they can clean that up, they can play really well. We’ve got to take that into account.”
Even if the Baltimore defense can build upon its impressive performance in Pittsburgh and hold Rivers and the San Diego offense in check, the great equalizer on Sunday might be the Chargers defense, which entered Week 12 ranked eighth in yards allowed and tied for 13th in points surrendered. Managing to win consecutive road games for the first time since 2010, the Ravens offense certainly didn’t do much at Heinz Field last week as they continued their chronic struggles away from M&T Bank Stadium.
In five road contests this season, the Ravens are only averaging 16.6 points per game as quarterback Joe Flacco has completed only 54.2 percent of his passes for three touchdowns and four interceptions away from M&T Bank Stadium. In the San Diego secondary, Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle provides a serious challenge as the versatile defensive back will sometimes play close to the line of scrimmage in run support while other times dropping deep into coverage, making him difficult to find at times.
Perhaps a bigger hurdle than the Chargers for the Ravens on Sunday could be themselves after an emotionally-draining and physical win over their bitter rivals last Sunday night. Baltimore could be vulnerable to a lackluster showing after following both wins against Pittsburgh last season with ugly road defeats to inferior opponents (Tennessee and Seattle).
The Ravens have practiced later in the afternoon all week — after doing research on sleep cycles and energy cycles, according to Harbaugh — and traveled to San Diego on Friday to adjust to the change in time zone and climate. With so much to lose in the event of another defeat to the Chargers, the Ravens hope the changes will be enough to return home with a victory late Sunday night.
“I always appreciate the Friday trips, but you’ve got to get out there and understand it’s a business trip,” running back Ray Rice said. “It’s not out there for leisure. You’ve got to try to do that out there with a different time change. But we do a pretty good job of adjusting. Now we’ve got to go ahead and take it to the field and just adjust a little faster.”
The Ravens will need to if they want to avoid another misstep in San Diego with so much to play for down the final stretch of the season.