Both the Ravens and the San Diego Chargers entered 2015 with high expectations, making their records halfway through the season among the biggest surprises in the NFL.
Now, these struggling teams meet with their playoff hopes all but gone, but the 1-6 Ravens aim for a win to feel good about as they enter next week’s bye. Meanwhile, the Chargers sport the top-ranked passing game in the NFL, but they’ve been a difficult team to figure out after losing by just seven to undefeated Green Bay at Lambeau Field two weeks ago and then falling behind 30-3 to Oakland in the first half of a home loss last Sunday.
With some time off and a chance to escape a miserable season looming, it remains to be seen how focused the Ravens will be as they’ve lost two of their last three games going into their bye week under John Harbaugh.
It’s time to go on the record as Baltimore and San Diego meet for the second consecutive year at M&T Bank Stadium. The teams have split 10 all-time meetings in the regular season with the Chargers winning two of the last three. The Ravens are 2-1 against San Diego in games played in Baltimore.
Here’s what to expect as Baltimore tries to win its first game in three tries against an AFC West opponent this season …
1. The Ravens defense will finally force a turnover after a four-game drought. It’s been more than a month since Elvis Dumervil stripped Andy Dalton of the football and C.J. Mosley picked up the fumble and ran for a touchdown in the Week 3 loss to Cincinnati, which was the last takeaway for Baltimore. Sporting just four takeaways in their first seven games, the Ravens are on pace to shatter the franchise-worst mark of 22 set in 1996 and tied last season. With 18 periods of football having passed without a Ravens takeaway, I won’t bother with specifics, but the defense will come away with one against a San Diego offense that will be throwing a lot and has had its own issues protecting the ball.
2. Chargers receiver Keenan Allen will catch 12 passes for over 130 yards and a touchdown. The 6-foot-2 wideout is off to an incredible start with a whopping 62 catches for 690 yards and three touchdowns in seven games, and there’s not a single Ravens cornerback — including Jimmy Smith — playing with the confidence to slow Allen down right now. With the Baltimore secondary so concerned with giving up the big play, Allen will feast in the short-to-intermediate portion of the field while the Ravens give him plenty of cushion. In the Chargers’ 34-33 win over the Ravens last season, Allen caught 11 passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns and he will post similar numbers on Sunday.
3. Joe Flacco will throw two touchdowns to tight ends against a banged-up San Diego defense. With Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle and starting inside linebacker Manti Te’o both out with injuries, Flacco should find room in the middle of the field for Crockett Gillmore and his two rookie tight ends to move the chains and make plays. The Chargers are allowing a league-worst 5.3 yards per carry and will stack the box trying to stop Justin Forsett, which should open the seam for Flacco to find Gillmore for a few chunk plays. With emerging second-year cornerback Jason Verrett matched against Steve Smith, the Ravens will need their tight ends to make plays in the middle of the field and they will.
4. Philip Rivers will become the second quarterback to throw for over 400 yards at M&T Bank Stadium this season. Considering journeyman Josh McCown passed for more than 450 yards against the Ravens in their last home game, there’s little reason to think a struggling defense will slow the NFL’s leading passer after Rivers nearly threw for 400 yards in last year’s win over Baltimore. With the Ravens only able to generate pressure using the blitz, Rivers will get rid of the ball quickly against a secondary reluctant to play press coverage. This will result in a long day for a Dean Pees defense that ranks dead last in the NFL in third-down defense.
5. Baltimore will not be able to overcome a short week and the league’s top-ranked passing game in a 30-24 loss. At first blush, I was inclined to pick the home team against a 2-5 opponent that was embarrassed at home by the Raiders a week ago, but coming off a short week is a bigger challenge than many think with the Ravens sporting a 3-5 record in games immediately following a Monday road game under John Harbaugh. Until the Ravens prove otherwise, I just can’t see them beating one of the top quarterbacks in the league when their own offense is so mediocre. We haven’t seen the Ravens make enough big plays on either side of the ball, and that will be the difference again in another close loss to a team that just isn’t a great matchup for them, especially with less time to prepare.